Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Life Is Beautiful

Life Is Beautiful was released in 1997 (as La Vita e Bella), but I could just as easily have been convinced that this film was released in 1967. The film has a throwback quality that gave it the same flavor as some of the great films created in the 1960s. The sets, cinematography and even the dialogue had a simple innocent quality that enhanced the experience for me. Roberto Benigni, who also stars in this film, did a phenomenal job as director, giving this film the essence of a Golden Era in Hollywood film.

Life Is Beautiful provides everything a movie-goer could possibly want. The script takes us through the full range of emotions. Benigni introduces us to a sharp young man, Guido Orefice (Benigni) whose mental acuity seems uncanny. Orefice is great with solving riddles, but even better at using his impeccable timing to woo the girl of his dreams, Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). Although Orefice earns a meager but honest living working as a waiter, he relies on his eternal optimism and humor to win Dora from a wealthy suitor (Braschi is Benigni's wife in real life, too!) The two gallop off on a green horse and we are swept forward several years as young Joshua Orefice (Giorgio Cantarini) comes running from the greenhouse. Joshua is willful and every bit as sharp as his father.

The film takes a sour turn as we realize that much has changed since Joshua was born. Nasty signs that declare "Jews and Dogs not allowed to enter" and graffiti mark the walls of the Orefice's town of Arezzo. Sandbags are visible everywhere. The darkening tone escalates, as we see Guido, Joshua and Uncle Eliseo (Giustino Durano) are carted away in a military truck. They arrive at a concentration camp, where Guido uses his quick wits to convince young Joshua that the prison camp is an elaborate game, a surprise for his birthday. Guido's unflappable determination to protect Joshua's innocence even amongst the death and decay of a concentration camp provides for some interesting opportunities to explore the full range of feelings. Hope, despair, humor, love, sadness, loss...this film visits the depths of your soul.

The writing in Life Is Beautiful is nothing short of genius. Benigni co-wrote the story with Vincenzo Cerami. The very idea that you could make a film about fascism, prejudice and life in a concentration camp and find room for humor speaks to the originality and creativity that Benigni and Cerami bring to this script. The plot meanders along with no clear direction, but dark foreshadowing that indicates the coming tribulations. The film is a love story, exploring the uncanny love between Guido and Dora, and the parental love for Joshua. The dialogue has a crisp talkative pace at times, where the sub-titles moved at speed-reader pace. But it was excellent. It did not appear that the humor lost anything in translation. The exceptional exchanges between the characters showed an immense intelligence was applied to this script. Life Is Beautiful had writing that was a breath of fresh air.

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