By BREANNA DAVIS
When the Holocaust is brought up, there is very rarely any room for laughter. In “Life is Beautiful,” however, Roberto Benigni shows us a Holocaust that is not focused on pain and suffering, but on laughter and family. The film basically has two parts: comedy and smiling while crying.
Benigni plays Guido, a silly waiter in his uncle’s restaurant. On his way into town, the brakes on his car give out and he is mistaken for a visiting dignitary. For him, it’s love at first sight when he sees Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, his real-life wife). Dora has a Fascist fiance who quickly becomes the implicit rival of Guido. Guido later befriends a German doctor (Horst Buchholz) and thanks to their shared love of riddles and by taking advantage of neatly orchestrated coincidences, makes it seem to Dora that he is fated to be her husband. A lot of the comedy that happens in this portion of the movie depends on a hat that is very well traveled.
This is what the majority of the first part of the movie is about: comedy. We don’t even find out that Guido is Jewish until we’re well into the film. Dora, a Gentile, falls in love with Guido pretty quickly. In one scene, Dora is tricked into going for a ride with Guido in the rain. He even poses as a speaker for Dora’s class, showing off his superb ears and awesome belly button.
Offscreen, years pass. Guido and Dora are married and have a five-yearold son, Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini). Near the end of the war, the Jews of the town are taken by train to a concentration camp. Guido, Joshua and his uncle are packed into a train, where Guido, using his natural wit and quick thinking, comes up with a game to ease his son’s fear. Since Dora is not Jewish, she does not have to go to the camp, but she insists on going in order to be with her family.
In the camp, Guido constructs an elaborate fiction to comfort and protect his son. It is all an elaborate game, he explains. The first one to get 1,000 points will win a tank—not a toy tank but a real one, which Joshua can drive all over town. Guido acts as the translator for a German who is barking orders at the inmates, translating them into Italian rules for the game. As part of the game, he literally hides the child from the camp guards.
In the real concentration camps, Guido would not exist. He more than likely would have died a tragic death. “Life is Beautiful” softens the Holocaust in order to make the humor possible. Rather than the focus being on the Nazis and Fascists, it is on love. It magnifies family and good will. It is about teaching children to constantly make the best of their situations. It is about how human conviction can go a long way to saving a life, or even living one.