Life is Beautiful earnestly embeds optimism in the darkest of moments, but with minimal emotional impact. La vita è bella. Benigni's audacious dramatic comedy that substitutes the frequently utilised depressing perspective of the Holocaust for a well-intentioned lighter tone. As with most revered classics, my initial approach is one filled with trepidation. The thought of my opinion being placed in the minority forces me to produce a defensive essay rather than a balanced review, at the possibility of being attacked. Unfortunately for Benigni, I disliked an entire half of his "masterful" feature, and was left perplexed as to how it crumbled into emotional manipulation for the sake of entertainment. A Jewish waiter finds the love of his life and starts a new family with her, only for their happiness to be abruptly interrupted when they are taken to a concentration camp.
To make light of such a horrific period of time is a brave decision. The cynics will view it as a piece of hyperbolic propaganda with pivotal moments of history being re-written in order to drain audiences of their happiness. Others will analyse this drama and overtly praise its unique perspective for accessibility, offering an obvious thematic premise, that being the retaining of optimism during times when humanity has exceeded a certain level of darkness. However theorising a concept and actually realising it are two very different hurdles. Just as different as the two halves that narratively create this feature.
The first and more superior half, is a romantic comedy that relishes in conveying a whimsical aesthetic for the fantastical injection of genuine character development that will instantly grant a smile to every viewer. Benigni's visual flair, reminiscent that of the legendary Charlie Chaplin, provides irreverent slapstick humour that suits the hyperactive performance that he infamously portrayed, instantly making him utterly adorable. Whether it be Guido accidentally storing eggs in his hat (a recipe for disaster if you ask me...) or bumbling around as a waiter. His contagious personality is enough to shine an optimistic light in the darkest of corridors, and that's partly due to the screenplay. A noteworthy series of events, once Guido picks up Dora from the opera theatre, that leads his character into a serendipitously magical direction, is a prime example of writing that emitted a loveable quality. The combination of the script with Benigni's performance, and his solid direction for the first half, had me laughing out loud on multiple occasions. With a glisten in my eye in the hope that this would be a new masterpiece. Sadly, not to be.
After a masterfully edited transition that sees us jump forward two/three years, our characters are now in the midst of the Holocaust. Jewish civilians are subjugated to poor treatment before being rallied up and transported to concentration camps. Yet Benigni maintains his level of comedy during this period of time, for the sake of his adolescent son who knows no different. As well-intentioned and delicately crafted as this tone was, it came across as highly insensitive and deceitfully manipulative. Various scenes, in particular the German translation segment, had me sink into my seat with a level of uncomfortableness. It didn't sit right with me in the slightest. The emotional connection with these characters dissipated instantly as soon as they were pushed onto the train, and that's mostly due to Benigni's insistence in conveying an overly ambitious optimistic perspective.
The more poignant moments of devastation unfazed me due to the bombastic buffoonery that felt misguided. The heartfelt character development that preceded the second half diminished to establish the scattershot exploration of concentration camp regime. And then, as soon as the supposed "gut punch" occurs, it's instantly forgotten about when an American tank arrives to save the day (historically incorrect by the way). It concludes on an appropriate quote regarding life and sacrifice, but at that point it's a little too late when all emotional investment is still lingering around in Italy. Atleast Piovani's score is consistently amazing throughout, capturing that Italian Renaissance aura.
It is regretful that I end this review with a shade of disappointment. Whilst technically astute and harnessing a heart of gold, the jarring second half emerges as exploitative rather than entertainment. A dire shame considering how wholesome the first half was. But praise must be given to Benigni for ambitiously conveying a wave of optimism, his personality certainly is infectious. I mean just look at that Academy Awards speech!