La vita è bella aka Life is Beautiful (1997) A Thought-Provoking Italian Holocaust Movie

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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?


9 thoughts on “La vita è bella aka Life is Beautiful (1997) A Thought-Provoking Italian Holocaust Movie

  1. […] Life is beautiful aka La vita è bella (1997, Italy): WWII, Holocaust (see post on La vita è bella) […]

  2. Cliff says:

    I read something over at IMDB in a review for the Longest Day and I think I can tie it in here.

    Back in the ’60s and before and after some too, you had a lot of war movies with fantastic plots, often fictional and in fact, the reviewer said it might have been “escapist” because the real war was not that far away in the minds of the public. A “realistic” depiction of the war was not what might make for a block buster picture though of course there were some that were historic.

    So, in this movie by comparision perhaps Genocide is treated in a more unique way and I personally like it and parts do make me laugh, it is a bit of fantasy in parts the way really, inglorious basterds at times, is just fantasy too.

    By the way, speaking of Italy, I was looking at some figures over at wiki for fatalities in World War I for Italy and the number in World War II. Surprisingly, in World War II from what I was able to learn there were far less than in World War I where really, Italy was one of the countries to suffer more in that aspect than other countries and of course, Italy was on the Allied side if I have that term correct. If true, it goes to show that really we don’t know that much about WWI though I’m sure the books are out there to inform us.

    • La vita è bella did make me laugh, that’s why I said it works and it did not take away anything from the seriousness, it’s from a purely intellectual point of view that I am not sure if it is ok.
      I am half Italian and don’t know all that much about the Italian’s participation in WWI and WWII is quite a shame, at least politically. Big battles like Monte Cassino must have been fought by others. Will have to do some reading in the future.

  3. Cliff says:

    Does post one mean you are Tweeting this? Or something like that? Thanks.

  4. Cliff says:

    Thousands of Soldiers were lost in Avalanches alone in World War I. Very tragic and I only recently found this out.

  5. […] La vita è bella – Life is Beautiful (1997, Italy) An family of Italian Jews is deported to a concentration camp where the father pretends it’s all a game. See my review […]

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