Reviewer's Rating 2 out of 5   User Rating 4 out of 5
La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful) (1998)
PG

It may have been showered with awards (including three Oscars) and struck box-office gold around the world, but "La Vita è Bella" remains a deeply problematic contribution to the growing body of films about the Holocaust.

Written and directed by Italian comedian Roberto Benigni, and photographed by master cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, it is a film of two distinct halves, inspired by Dante's observation that, "There is no bigger tragedy than to remember the happy times during the misery."

We begin in late 1930s Tuscany, where the clownish Guido (a permanently grinning Benigni) arrives in the town of Arezzo. Dreaming of opening a bookshop, he finds temporary work as a waiter and begins to woo blushing schoolteacher Dora (Braschi, the director's wife) who's engaged to the local Fascist official. Punctuating this fairy tale love story are moments of Chaplinesque slapstick, including the Jewish Guido's bravura impersonation of a school inspector.

The two lovers marry and have an adorable child Giosué (Cantarini), but then several years later the family are deported to a German-run concentration camp. There the father pretends to his son that the brutal conditions and screaming guards are part of an elaborate and bizarre game where points are awarded for good behaviour and first prize is a tank.

A fable rather than a slice of historical realism, the film is presumably intended as a tribute to the powers of imagination, innocence, and love in the most harrowing of circumstances. How appealing you find it will probably depend on your response to Benigni's screen-hogging routines - the line between endearing and irksome is a fine one.

And while comedy here does capture something of the absurdity of the death camps, ultimately Benigni's sentimental fantasy diminishes the suffering of Holocaust victims, with the self-consciously 'beautiful' shot of a mound of corpses the most glaring of several directorial misjudgements.

End Credits

Director: Roberto Benigni

Writer: Roberto Benigni, Vincenzo Cerami

Stars: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini, Giustino Durano, Sergio Bustric, Horst Buchholz

Genre: Drama, World Cinema

Length: 116 minutes

Cinema: 1998

DVD: 22 January 2001

VHS: 22 November 1999

Country: Italy

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