Even now, 15 years on, it seems almost impossible that Roberto Benigni managed to pull off Life Is Beautiful. Setting what is essentially a slapstick farce in a concentration camp is one hell of a gambit and could have gone horribly wrong. Indeed, the most interesting part of the new, hour-long documentary included on this Blu-ray edition is the discussion about what is a suitable depiction of the Holocaust and what isn’t, and the fears many involved had before they made the movie that the film not only couldn’t work, but could even end up being cheered by Holocaust deniers.
Benigni managed it though, using humour to highlight and contrast against the horrors the characters face. Indeed part of the movie’s power is that nothing about the concentration camp is funny – it never jokes about that – and it’s the place’s very grimness that Guido is trying to hide his son from. It is humour in the face of tragedy, and comedy that’s a testament to the human spirit.
The rise of fascism and the subjugation of the Jews is only in the background during the first half of the film, which concentrates on a Jewish waiter called Guido (Benigni) and his attempts to woo a schoolteacher called Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). To be honest his romantic attentions verge on stalking, but Dora is charmed despite being promised to another man. They eventually marry and the film jumps a few years forward, when Guido and Dora have a young son and are running a bookshop.
One day the Germans arrive and round up the Jews, taking Guido and his son down to the train station to be shipped to a camp. While Dora is a gentile, she insists on going too, although once at the concentration camp she is separated from her husband and child. While the world around them gets ever darker and more horrifying, Guido is determined that his son stay innocent about the truth of their situation. He pretends the whole thing is a game, where everyone is trying to score points in order to win a tank. But can Guido not only keep his son happy and innocent, but also ensure they survive to the end of the war?
To be honest I find Roberto Benigni slightly annoying in the early stages of the movie, but there’s little doubt he’s an extremely good director and when it comes to the emotional crunch points of the film, he knows exactly what to do. By the end I have to give the man his dues, because it’s his performance more than anything else that gives power to the movie. For example, when he comes across a pile of murdered bodies, it’s not the image of death that underlines the emotional punch, but the expression on Benigni’s face. I certainly don’t begrudge him his Best Actor Oscar, although I could have done without his cringe-inducing crawling over seats antics.
Life Is Beautiful is clever, smart comedy in the tradition of Chaplin and Jacques Tati, using humour to explore the world and find truth that’s sometimes difficult to get to with a po-face. Most comedians wouldn’t dare to try to make something funny about something so serious, as they’d be too afraid of hitting the wrong tone or inciting a backlash, but Life Is Beautiful is a magnificent achievement, as brave as it is moving and as charming as it is horrifying. Few films manage to juggle so many disparate emotions so well and to such devastating effect.
This new Blu-ray gives the movie an HD spruce up. While the colours are somewhat muted, that’s more to do with the film’s pre-digital heritage than anything else. The clarity meanwhile it pretty good, with little grain, although the edges are sometimes a tad soft and the blacks aren’t as deep as with more modern releases. That isn’t a problem until the end, when the night-time images become slightly murky. Largely though it’s a decent upgrade from the DVD edition and the picture is certainly a lot better.
As mentioned, there’s a new documentary included on the disc that talks to some of those involved in the movie, looking back on the film 15 years on. It’s a shame Benigni and Braschi didn’t take part, although it’s interesting to see Giorgio Cantarini, who played the cute little five-year-old in the film and is now a gangling young adult.
Also included is a ‘making of… featurette’, a 1997 interview with Roberto Benigni and Nicoletta Braschi, some B-roll footage and a trailer. It’s a pretty good selection although the lack of new input from Benigni is a shame. You can also choose whether you want to hear the film in the original Italian, an English dubbed version (and there’s a French one on the disc too, in case you fancy that). As purists we’d say the cadence of the Italian is an important part of the movie, but if you can’t be bothered to read, the English dub will do.
Indeed the lack of Benigni in general since Life Is Beautiful is peculiar. He made Pinocchio in 2002, followed that with The Tiger & The Snow in 2005, but that’s about it. Woody Allen’s bringing him back this summer with To Rome With Love, but there’s little doubt he generally failed to capitalise on the success of Life Is Beautiful. However his 1997 movie stands as a testament to his talent, and ranks alongside Schindler’s List as one of the best Holocaust movies ever made.
Overall Verdict: A great movie that uses comedy to highlight tragically and bring light to one of the darkest chapters in human history. And with an HD upgrade and new documentary the movie is looking good.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac