Life Is Beautiful (la Vita E Bella)

on October 22, 1998 by Lael Loewenstein
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One of the few crowd-pleasing films at this year's Cannes festival, "Life is Beautiful" nabbed the Grand Prize and seems destined to appeal to American audiences as well. Based on its successful opening in Italy (and its echoes, no doubt, of "Il Postino"), Miramax wisely picked up this Italian picture for stateside release. Beautifully told and attractively shot, Roberto Benigni's film is both funny and moving, with an unusual shift in tone midway through. "Life is Beautiful," which calls itself a fable, explores the power of laughter to lift the human spirit even in the face of extreme tragedy.
   Set in Italy in 1939, amid a climate of growing anti-Semitism and fascism, the film follows Guido (Benigni), an enchanting, childlike man whose warmth and humor buoy him through various misadventures in the Tuscan town of Arezzo.
   Guido, whose comedic precursors are Charlie Chaplin, Harpo and Chico Marx, falls instantly for Dora (the luminous Nicoletta Braschi), a beautiful schoolteacher who finds him charming but is already promised to another man.
   Undeterred, Guido pursues her, and in fairy-tale fashion, they fall in love and marry. With the apparent effortlessness of a great clown, Benigni sails through various scenarios that call for physical comedy and deft timing.
   With key elements in place, the film moves into its second half where its fairy-tale opening gives way to a much darker storyline.
   A few years later, Dora and Guido are happily married with a young son (Giorgio Cantarini). Italy has been overrun by Fascists who have been deporting Jews. When Guido and his son are sent to a concentration camp shortly before the war's end, Dora voluntarily goes along though she is separated from her husband and son. Through it all, Guido is determined to protect his son from the harsh reality they face, and uses his humor and imagination to concoct games and stories to keep the boy's spirits up. The film ends on a bittersweet, undeniably moving note.
   Although the mood shift is surprising and extremely risky, it works, thanks to Benigni's beautiful characterization of Guido, the story's guiding force. Moreover, its strong technical aspects keep the film just slightly removed from reality. Tonino Delli Colli's delicate cinematography, with its subtle shifts in lighting, combines with Nicola Piovani's evocative score to give the story the universal appeal of a fable. Starring Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi and Giorgio Cantarini. Written by Roberto Benigni and Vincenzo Cerami. Directed by Roberto Benigni. Produced by Elda Ferri and Gianluigi Braschi. A Miramax release. Comedy/drama. Italian-language; subtitled. Not yet rated. Running time: 114 min.
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