Movie Review - Life Is Beautiful/La Vita É Bella

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Roberto Benigni
Cecchi Gori Group Tiger Cinematografica
for holocaust-related thematic elements.

Life Is Beautiful is the sort of film that gets you thinking “outside the box”. For one thing, it’s in Italian, so we all knew before it started that this wasn’t going to be a normal movie experience. For another, it’s a movie that has been described as both a Holocaust film and a romantic comedy, which isn’t exactly a standard blend of genres. Life Is Beautiful, in dozens of different ways, presents combinations of themes, plot-twists and moral decisions that are really atypical, to one degree or another—dozens of ways to get us thinking outside the box. We, as human beings who have seen movies before, have a natural tendency to enjoy originality when we have a chance to see it. Life Is Beautiful, however, might be so good at getting us outside the box that, perhaps, we run the risk of forgetting what the “box” is.

Sexual Content:
The first half of the film is the romantic comedy, a genre which is handled with some of that originality that appeals to us so well. How do the main character and his “Princess” meet? Not by running into one another, actually. That’s how they meet the second time. The first time Guido encounters his lady fair is when she falls out of a hay loft on top of him. It’s original, perhaps, but both meetings involve an inappropriate exposure of her legs and a highly suggestive, horizontal position of the characters relative to one another. Guido, after saving Dora’s neck that first time, proceeds to “save” her from the dangers of a wasp sting by “sucking the poison out of her thigh,” an action which startles but does not repulse her, even when he insinuatingly asks if she was stung anywhere else.
The imaginative, unconventional manner of the protagonist might, perhaps, soften the blow of his even more offensive improprieties, to the point that we fail to realize, for all his words, exactly what he’s saying. Phrases like “make love” might have meant something else in the era in which the film takes place, but the modern definition is very clearly what is meant in the script, and Guido doesn’t blush to elaborate on his desires, just in case we were uncertain. However, we can’t isolate the protagonist as the only offender in this category, because Dora herself, though she resists his advances bluntly, resists them only temporarily. Now, it is true that when she, envisioning a reasonable and pleasurable date night, ends with “and then whatever happens, happens,” she didn’t know she was talking to Guido, but she could hardly, as an unmarried woman, have thought she was talking to her husband. The scene where she, bare shouldered, crawls toward Guido under the table and then kisses him passionately is at best highly inappropriate. The scene following, where he takes her home—to his home—and then follows her seductive lead into the greenhouse where, evidently, “whatever happens” happens, is highly inappropriate.

Another problem with that kissing scene I mentioned is that it takes place at a party celebrating Dora’s engagement to a man other than Guido. Escape from an arranged marriage is one of those in-the-box plot devices, and it’s no bad idea to take it out of the box and overhaul it for use in a more imaginative story. Unfortunately, the marriage Dora manages to escape from is one to which she had consented. Keeping one’s promises (or at least getting released from them honorably) is another in-the-box idea, and because it is tossed out as one of many, it is perhaps not as easily missed as it ought to be.
Other less-innovative concepts that are replaced by certain recurring themes in Life Is Beautiful include the idea of honoring one’s father and mother. Dora’s mother is overbearing, immature and difficult to get along with. Does Dora’s mother deserve to be honored? Better question: Does it matter? It was the daughter’s duty to honor both her parents, regardless of their shortcomings, and in this case, failure to obey the fifth commandment is not merely a result of improper contempt, but of out-and-out hypocrisy. If Dora’s mother is overbearing, Dora is egocentric, and the best we can say for Dora’s own immaturity and irritability is that she came by them honestly. If stamping, grimacing and rolling the eyes is acceptable public behavior for a “Princess” even in Guido’s imaginary kingdom, we’ve definitely gotten too far out of the box.
Another traditional premise—not reversed but certainly reworked in Life Is Beautiful—is that, in order to win the princess’ heart, the prince must be charming. Inside the box, “charming” indicates a particular level of gentility as well as gallantry, and the gallantry is defined by a particular level of respect for the damsel in the story. It is not as if those things are entirely absent from Guido’s behavior, but on the whole his gentility is only visible in his capacity as a waiter, his gallantry—real enough in one sense—is tarnished by his disdain for private property and conventional etiquette, and his respect for Dora, if one could call it that, is confined, in the first half of the movie, to her capacity as the object of his physical desires—that is to say, in her capacity as an object.

In Life Is Beautiful, as in many other films, bad philosophy or even utter nonsense can be introduced to the audience without undergoing serious scrutiny because it is presented as either bizarre (and therefore humorous) or profound (and therefore above our criticism). “Nothing is more necessary than the unnecessary,” one of the more mild philosophical mistakes, is a statement that violates the law of non-contradiction, unless Guido’s uncle is trying to persuade us that, after all, there is no such thing as necessity. “You’re serving; you’re not a servant. Serving is a supreme art. God is the first servant. God serves men, but he is not a servant to men” is an exercise in the fallacy of equivocation, where a word or phrase changes meaning part way through the argument. The only profound thing in the quote is the difference between the way a waiter serves his patrons and the way God serves humanity.
Interestingly, that quote, two other brief references to the “Lord”, neither of which were exactly examples of piety or sincerity, and a playful joke on Dora involving the Virgin Mary, are the only appeals to religion in the entire film, unless you start looking for other kinds of religion. In times of crisis, Guido turns, not to God, but to Arthur Schopenhauer, an atheistic, pessimistic philosopher who was influenced by Kant and who, in turn, influenced Nietzsche. All that the movie tells us about his worldview is that “Schopenhauer says that with will power you can do anything. I am what I want to be.” If we hadn’t been instructed to laugh at it, if it hadn’t come up so many times, and if it hadn’t appeared to actually work, a simple warning about the philosophy might have been enough to counteract its significance.
The same can be said about Guido’s persistent recourse to deceit in times of hardship or simply times when nothing interesting is happening. My concern in this review is not just that Guido lied, but that in the romantic comedy part of the movie, his lying is a very large part of what the audience is supposed to find romantic and comedic. When the movie finally turns to the Holocaust, the deceit at least has well-intentioned motives and a clever and unconventional plot twist—not to justify it, exactly, but to keep us from thinking about it. We would certainly recognize that Guido’s desire to protect his son from fear and emotional scarring has a better chance of justifying deceit than his previous motives did, but the question of the purpose and validity of his dishonesty remains, and needs to be answered. Even if we are able to say with conviction and a clear conscience that the end justifies the means, we may still be left wondering if there was not some better way to achieve that end.

Thinking outside the box is good for us, and it’s far more enjoyable than the alternative, once we get used to it. There are times, however, when we need to reel ourselves back in and examine just how far out movies like Life Is Beautiful want to take us. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the difference between a new spin on an old theme and a new item altogether, perhaps because we’re so used to looking for the good in movies that we hardly notice any more just how much bad we have to go through to find it. There are good things in Life Is Beautiful. There is courage and sacrificial love, and there is an engaging level of originality, but a real man is made up of more than courage and sacrificial love, and the originality is not worth what it took away from the morality.

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