By Fred Harvey
The History Place
I think the most meaningful films about the Holocaust
are small European movies that allow us to get involved with a single person
or family in their town or village and let us observe up close the impact
of evil on people we have come to genuinely care about.
Life is Beautiful, written, directed by
and starring Roberto Benigni, is indeed such a movie and follows in the
fine European tradition of The Shop on Main Street and Europa,
Europa, carefully blending a bit of comedy with the wrenching sorrow
resulting from the systematic roundup and deportation of Jews to concentration
This movie is divided into two main parts, the
first featuring the charming, romantic buffoonery of the Italian-Jewish
Guido Orefice, played by Benigni, who has come to work as a waiter in his
uncle's fancy hotel in 1939.
Roberto Benigni struck me as part Jerry Lewis
and part Harpo Marx, utilizing slap stick, prat falls and running jokes
such as stealing other guys' hats, and later pretending to be an Italian
Fascist while dressed only in his underwear.
He sets his romantic sights on the pretty school
teacher Dora, played by Nicoletta Braschi, and literally sweeps her off
her feet, saving her from what promised to be a tedious marriage to a boring
member of the local upper crust.
After all of the funny romantic stuff, the film
jumps ahead five years or so, assuming their marriage with the appearance
of a young son named Giosué, an adorable little fellow played by
Giorgio Cantarini. By this time, the Nazis have occupied their town and
have begun harassing Jews, including posting signs on non-Jewish shops
saying 'no Jews or dogs allowed.' The little boy wants to know why this
is so. Guido invents a false answer and thus begins a pattern of creative
deception to shield the boy from the ugly reality.
On the day of little Giosué's sixth birthday
party, Guido and the boy are abruptly hauled off for deportation along
with all of the town's Jews. Upon entering the box car at the train depot,
Guido answers his son's inquiry about what is going on by pretending the
entire thing is a game and the goal is to follow papa's rules and win points.
It works, the boy likes this game.
The brilliance of this film is that it shifts
to the little boy's point of view once they enter the concentration camp
seemingly to play papa's fascinating new game in which the goal is to outwit
your opponents, the SS, and tally a thousand points to win a genuine tank.
This takes place amid a scenario in which the Nazis routinely gas all of
the old people and young children considered unfit for work.
The daily life and death game continues as Guido
performs slave labor while his little boy hides out in the men's barracks
while somehow learning that other kids are being 'cooked' in ovens in the
The day eventually arrives when the Nazis hastily
begin burning documents and evacuate or shoot the remaining inmates. This
is the end of the game and I don't want to give away anything here, because
the ending of this movie is magnificent and I found it deeply touching.
I especially recommend Life is Beautiful
for parents and their young teens to see together. The film is mostly violence-free
and has enough light comedy to keep your kid interested, while ultimately
providing a meaningful dramatic experience concerning the Holocaust. The
dialogue is Italian and German with English subtitles, therefore would
likely be a difficult viewing experience for younger children.