Life is Beautiful (1998)

Yes, it took me this long to watch Life is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning masterpiece.

It took a bit to warm up to this film. More at home in 1938 than 1998, I had to relax into classic-film mode, yet because of the subject matter I expected to be betrayed with scene of violence–something to shock my senses. Benigni does not betray his audience. He is true to an earlier time.

On the surface, it is the story of a man who uses humor to win the heart of a woman, then shield his son from the horrors of a concentration camp. We know the stories of the holocaust, so while Roberto touches on those themes quite seriously, they are not the center of the film. That belongs to Guido and his family–the deep affection that he protects at all costs and never takes for granted.

On another level entirely, it plays as a lovely homage to one of my favorites: Danny Kaye. Benigni is Kaye on about half a valium. There are echoes of The Inspector General throughout the film, and it is made in the style of that era. Stagey sets speak to wartime films made when the war was current news. The harsh theme is handled with an overall gentleness spiked with satire–something at which Kaye was expert. Perhaps I’m reading something into the film that isn’t there; nonetheless, it enriched my view of it.

I recommend Life, but remember that this is not a film of the 90s. It is not even a 90s film pretending to be a 30s film. It is a 30s film. Watch it, then go rent some Danny Kaye.

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