Life is Beautiful is two films in one. The first part is a lighthearted comedy and the second is a dark and depressing look at the Holocaust. It’s too bad that director/actor/writer Roberto Benigni wasn’t able to split this movie into two different films. While a substantive film, Life is Beautiful leads the viewers down one path and then transports them to another going in the opposite direction.
During the lighthearted and often hilarious first hour of the film we get the setup and the background of the film. Guido (Benigni) is an Italian countryman who moves to the big city. He dreams of opening a bookstore. On the way to the city he bumps into a beautiful woman, Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) for whom he falls madly in love with. Guido ultimately wins the heart of Dora and they are married. As the first hour ends, the mood and tone of the film changes abruptly. The audience who has been laughing during this first hour is suddenly taken into a more morose hour.
Five years later Guido and Dora are still happily married and are raising their five-year-old son. Plus, Guido has finally gotten his bookstore. Not all is well in Italy though. The Nazi’s have taken more of the country and the political atmosphere is not the best – especially for the Jews, as is pointed out by a sign hanging on a shop window that reads, “No Jews or dogs allowed.” The pinnacle of the Nazi infestation of Italy finally takes its toll on the family. Guido, his wife, and son are taken to a concentration camp. It is here that the movie turns dark and depressing.
When someone falls, it hurts much more when they fall from a higher place. Benigni does just this to the audience, intentionally or not, by starting out lighthearted and then going dark. The lightheartedness of the first hour brings the audience up high and then as we go into the second hour Benigni just lets the audience fall. For me, I could have done without this switch in tone, which made the film all that much more depressing. And although Guido is constantly the clownish man trying to keep his son happy in the concentration camp, there is always a sense of dread hanging in the air during the second hour.
What would have been better would have been to split this movie into two complete films. Although the first part of the film is there to set everything up, it could have been a good romantic comedy. And the second half of the film is a deep and touching Holocaust film that would have made more of an impact standing alone. Together, though, these two parts make for a film that misleads you to start and then puts you on a sad track afterwards. Ultimately, the film is about the strength that comes from the human spirit and the sacrifices that people make during their times of suffering.
The one standout thing about Life is Beautiful is the film’s score. The score by Nicola Piovani is excellent with one of the most memorable themes I’ve heard lately. It is light when it needs to be and powerful when the time comes. And never is the score overpowering. Kudos to Piovani for this wonderful film score.
Don’t Miss Life is Beautiful, but be forewarned that this is a pretty bleak film. I didn’t get this warning ahead of time and I am still quite depressed after my screening of the film.