(For more on Life is Beautiful, also take a look at this paper I did on general criticisms of the movie.)
Life is Beautiful, an Italian movie that was originally released in 1997 under the title “La vita è bella,” is a drama and romantic comedy. The story takes place in 1930s Arezzo, Italy and focuses on the life of a Jewish man named Guido Orefice, who arrives in town with plans to open a bookshop. Almost immediately after arriving in town, he becomes interested in a woman named Dora that he keeps running into (sometimes quite literally) around town. He begins to pursue her romantically, eventually winning her away from her fiancé and starting a family with her. Years later, Guido and Giosué are rounded up and deported to a death camp during World War II. Dora, who is not Jewish, demands to be placed on the train along with her husband and son, because she can’t stand to be apart from them. Ironically, she ends up as a prisoner in an adjacent death camp for women and is still separated from her family. For the remainder of the movie, Guido spends all of his time trying to convince his son that the entire experience is part of an elaborate game where the winner takes home a brand new tank.
Life is Beautiful is a complicated movie to analyze or compare with anything else because of how unusual the genre is for the subject. Comedy is not usually part of the Holocaust discussion, because there’s really nothing funny about it, in terms of the scope, the scale and the end result. When I think of the scene from Night and Fog where the camera pans out and then up, showing a mountain of hair, I think about how many people had to have died for that pile of hair to be created. It is both powerful and subtle and clearly indicates the nature and scale of the tragedy and it does so in a manner that I find wholly more appropriate to the subject. Nonetheless, comedy is used as an important plot driver in Life is Beautiful. Specifically, the main character, Guido, engages in slapstick comedy antics throughout the movie. In the first half of the movie, when Guido is attempting to woo Dora away from her fiancé, Guido’s antics seem to serve no real purpose, other than to entertain and endear himself to the audience. In the second half of the movie, the use of comedy is more questionable given the subject matter, but it is used to better effect as part of the plot. Guido uses comedy as a tool, along with distraction and elaborate stories, to distract his son from what’s going on in the camp. The problem with this use of comedy is that Guido sometimes ignores the well-being of himself, his son and everyone around him in an attempt to keep his son entertained, causing the situation to become unbelievable.
Comedy aside, one of the important themes in Life is Beautiful is the effect of the Holocaust on families. The first part of the movie builds up an almost fantasy-like love story where the “hero” gets the girl and settles down to raise his son and run his own business. It doesn’t get much better than that, does it? Then, the fascists arrive, and everything Guido has managed to accomplish, the fairy-tale existence that is meant to appeal emotionally to the audience, is suddenly destroyed, simply because Guido and his son are Jewish. To maximize the emotional effect on the audience, Dora is presented as being willing to sacrifice herself to remain close to her family. During his time in the death camp, Guido puts himself and his son at risk to find opportunities to let his wife know that they are still alive. The idea that anyone could have actually pulled off the stunts portrayed by Guido in the movie is ridiculous, but the inclusion of these scenes in the movie is probably meant to call attention to the fact that families were ripped apart during the Holocaust in a way that would be emotionally appealing to the audience. The moment that truly symbolizes this loss, however contrived the plot, is when Guido dies while attempting to find and save his wife from the guards’ final extermination efforts before abandoning the camp.
The presentation of Jews in this movie is two-sided. On the one hand, “the Jews” in the movie are a faceless mass that acts in a supporting role to the main story of Guido and his son. They are shown as docile followers of orders in a rather two-dimensional way. On the other hand is Guido, who is the main character. The story of Life is Beautiful could almost be said to be Guido-driven, rather than character or plot driven. He is a one man show that overwhelms the narrative with monologue. He manipulates people, takes risks and actively engages in his survival and the survival of his son and wife. So, this movie presents both popular narratives of Jewish people during the Holocaust: passive sheep allowing themselves to be led to the slaughter and active resisters in any way possible.
Because of its use of comedy, Life is Beautiful is difficult to take seriously and, in light of the seriousness of the historical events the movie uses as a backdrop, many people find it offensive. More than that, some people find it insulting to the victims of the Holocaust. Not everything in the movie is emotional fluff, however. There are still worthwhile messages and themes that can be pulled from the movie, though it’s probably not something I will watch again.