In 1930s Italy, a carefree Jewish book keeper named Guido starts a fairy tale life by courting and marrying a lovely woman from a nearby city. Guido and his wife have a son and live happily together until the occupation of Italy by German forces. In an attempt to hold his family together and help his son survive the horrors of a Jewish Concentration Camp, Guido imagines that the Holocaust is a game and that the grand prize for winning is a tank. Written by
Anthony Hughes <email@example.com>
Roberto Benigni's Vita e bella, is in many ways similar to Chaplin's Great Dictator. Both are comic attacks on fascism, but the former's is the more successful. Benigni initially accesses the emotions of his audience through simple comedy, which is a pleasant mix of Keaton and Chaplin. Romance ensues with his real life wife Nicoletta Braschi. The first half of this film has been seen by various critics as being inferior to the second, but this is certainly not the case. In the first section we follow the delightful romance that will eventually lead to marriage and the creation of the wonderful Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini).
It is the first half where the audience can laugh the loudest and delight at the immense comedy talent of Benigni. Unlike so many films nowadays there is nothing crude or course, his is simple innocent humour, which is all the more effective. The way he ties together little strand in the film to create comedy elements shows a great writing ability, and a mastery of timing when it comes to their execution on screen. Various incidents related to the rise of anti-semitism and fascism in Italy show that there are sinister forces at work which come to the fore in the second segment.
Guido (Benigni) moves events on from Tuscany in 1939 to the last year of the war in a concentration camp. In this period he and Dora (Braschi) have had their son Giosue (Cantanarini). The five year old greatly reminds me of Toto in Cinema Paradiso, and plays an equally important role in his prospective film (though in Paradiso's case it is at the beginning of the movie). The relationship between the two is very similar to that of Jackie Coogan and Charlie Chaplin (though Benigni, unlike Chaplin, keeps the best of the comedy moments). Guido attempts to keep from the boy the horrors of what is going on, and this eventually manifests itself as a game where the aim is to score 100 points, with the winner winning a real tank (which, of course appeals to the young boy). Comic moments are still present, that involving Guido's translation of the rules of the camp is particularly notable, but it becomes somewhat more difficult to laugh when we consider the gravity of what is going on.
The emphasis begins shifts, and we realise that this is a film about human spirit above all else. Guido not only appeals to the audience due to his comedy and sheer pleasantness, but also in the way that he loves his family and the measures that he will go to to protect them.
This is certainly no Schindler's List, but it never pretends to be. Occasionally events seem a little contrived, but this does seem to work in the film's favour. However, this film avoids the tendency of Hollywood to go far over the top in emotional and credibility terms.
Benigni shines like a lantern throughout the picture, showing that he is a talent, not only in comedy terms, that far outshines his peers. Cantanari is a delight, and Braschi also plays her part well. There is even an appearance by The Magnificent Seven's Horst Buchholz as Doctor Lessing, a man who events change for the worse.
Please don't let the fact that it, to all but the Italians, is a foreign language film. The language itself adds a beauty of form to the film, much as it did in the case of Il Postino. This has to be a certainty for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, though something tells me that it will be overlooked for other awards as it is Italian and not a mainstream English language picture.
Please see this film, and make up your own mind. It is appealing in so many different ways that I'm sure that you will not be disappointed.
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