La vita è bella is a very unusual movie that you will hardly ever forget should you watch it. It is touching, at times funny, tragic and sentimental. It shows one man’s attempt to protect his child from the horrors of the concentration camp and how he fails in the end. It is one of the movies on my Children in War Movies List.
Roberto Benigni, the Italian main actor, writer and director of La vita è bella is mainly known as a comedian. People were quite surprised when they heard he had done a movie on the Holocaust. I remember that I had mixed feelings but was really surprised how well this combination works. Other critics however felt offended as they stated it was in poor taste to attempt to combine a comedy with the topic of the Holocaust. But the comedy pretty much stops when the war begins. The movie has really two parts that are strikingly different which was obviously wanted. The beautiful before and the horrible after.
The Jewish man Guido Orefice (Roberto Benigni) is not a good-looking guy. He is not even very intelligent. He is clumsy and silly but also very funny and charming and has an eye for poetical and beautiful things. This is how he wins the heart of the attractive Dora even though she is already engaged to a future fascist leader.
The second part starts a few years after their marriage. They have a little boy named Guisoué. Anti-Jewish laws have been implemented in Italy and Guido tries to hide their meaning from his son by turning them into a game. When they know they will be deported, Dora, even though she is not Jewish, accompanies them to the concentration camp. Once arrived Guido pretends that this is all a game, some sort of summer camp for children and grown-ups alike. He makes his son believe that they have to follow all the orders strictly if they want to win.
I must admit that I did not totally approve of Benigni’s approach, but it is not a movie that is easily forgotten. And it is thought-provoking and will give ample material for discussion of various questions. Are we allowed to tell the Holocaust through comedy? Should a movie about the Holocaust be this sentimental? Wouldn’t it be better to tell it in a more sober manner? La vita è bella is also problematic when it comes to the historical facts. Children were not kept alive in the camps. Still the first part is a touching and funny story of an impossible courtship while the second is the story of a fathers attempt at keeping the horror at bay.
Did you see it? Did it work for you? And if you haven’t, would you want to watch it? Do you mind a Holocaust comedy?