Life is Beautiful

Italy 1997

Reviewed by Colin MacCabe


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Italy, 1939. Guido, a young Jew, accompanied by his friend Ferruccio, descends on Arezzo where Guido's uncle has promised to help him to set up a bookshop. Before they even arrive at the town, Guido has met and fallen in love with a local young schoolteacher, Dora, whom he calls his "Princess". Guido eventually woos his (non-Jewish) princess away from Rodolfo, the boorish fascist official with whom he has an unfortunate encounter when he tries to obtain permission to open his bookshop. While waiting for this permission, Guido works in his uncle's hotel where he meets, among others, a school inspector (whom he impersonates to see Dora at work) and Doctor Lessing, a German obsessed by riddles.

A few years later, Guido and his young son Giosué are deported to a concentration camp. Dora insists that she must suffer the same fate as well. Guido is determined to shield his child from the horrors that surround him and persuades Giosué they are actually engaged in a weird and wonderful game in which the prize is a life-size version of the toy tank which is the child's most treasured possession. As the camp is abandoned by the German guards, Guido hides his son and is killed trying to rescue Dora. Giosué finally comes out of his hiding place to encounter the tank of his dreams driven by a US soldier who reunites him with his mother.


Life Is Beautiful starts as an idyllic Italian comedy set in Mussolini's Italy, but from the opening sequence of the film, in which Guido and Ferruccio are mistaken for royal visitors and given the fascist salute, we are aware that this is a comedy firmly rooted in history. Nothing, however, prepares us for the shock that begins the second half of the film when Guido and his young son Giosué are escorted to a train destined for the death camps.

Comedy is the genre that celebrates the social. Traditionally, comedies end with a marriage, confirming the power of society to reproduce itself. Tragedy is the domain of the individual, traditionally ending with the death of the hero who can't conform to the demands of the community. Life Is Beautiful takes for its subject matter the Holocaust - the attempt to build a new social order on the systematic extermination of an entire race. The horror of the camps defies all genres. In a world where murder is an instrument of state policy, all notions of the individual or the social are negated.

Benigni's magnificent film attempts the impossible: to make a comedy out of the Holocaust, to find an affirmation of society in the death of all social relations. This is not a work of realism. The central story - Guido hides his son Giosué in the camp as he persuades him that this is all a game - has no historical plausibility. But the film is not interested in this kind of realism. The marriage between Jewish Guido and gentile Dora is equally unlikely. Indeed the set, costumes and lighting in the second half of the film are all designed to produce a level of abstraction which does nothing to detract from the horror and brutality of the camps. However, this heightend mise en scène makes it seem otherworldly.

There is equally no attempt to understand the historical processes which produced Nazism and its millions of murders. The Germans are presented as an incomprehensible race whether they be brutal camp guards or the sophisticated Doctor Lessing. He re-encounters Guido in the camp and arranges a private meeting, only to pose him yet more riddles, while the philosopher Schopenhauer is invoked by Ferruccio at the beginning of the film as the thinker who held that one could change reality simply by force of will.

This is what the concentration camps at one level are: the perverted and bureaucratic product of an idealism which would make the real and the 'rational' one. It is against this will that Guido opposes his own to produce a world where his child can be happy. In this titanic mismatch of individual and system, Benigni, the supreme European clown of his generation, mobilises a comic heritage that reaches back through Chaplin to the commedia dell'arte. Never has Benigni's mobile face been put to more varied use; never has Nicoletta Braschi been so simply beautiful. The direction is as assured as the acting. The full resources of the cinema are harnessed to make the world of Arezzo live before us. The elegant farce of the hotel scenes are as good as anything produced in Europe this decade.

One could criticise the film for abandoning the terrain of the social, or rather for reducing it to the basic unit of the family. But the film's strength is its settled faith that the affective bonds of the family can overcome the worst that society can offer. If this is a fantasy, it is probably a compensation we need when facing the reality of history. It is not too fanciful to read in this fantasy of a father's protectiveness the real guilt of a generation of European children who grew up knowing they had been unable to save their own fathers.

But if much discussion of the film will turn around its narrative denouement, its real emotional strength comes from the simply acted and beautifully shot first hour in which Guido's love for Dora triumphs over all obstacles. "There is no greater sorrow," says Dante, "than to recall a time of happiness in misery." Throughout the second half of the film we are achingly aware of such happiness lost. It may be that the Holocaust will always defeat any attempt at representation or comprehension but Benigni's Life Is Beautiful is the first film that recognises the enormity of the task.


Elda Ferri
Gianluigi Braschi
Vincenzo Cerami
Roberto Benigni
from their own story
Director of Photography
Tonino Delli Colli
Simona Paggi
Production Designer
Danilo Donati
Music/Music Conductor/ Orchestration
Nicola Piovani
©Melampo Cinematografica srl - Roma
Production Companies
Mario e Vittorio Cecchi Gori present/Roberto Benigni presents a production of Melampo Cinematografica
Executive Producer
Mario Cotone
Production Managers
Pietro Sassaroli
Tullio Lullo
Unit Managers
Olivia Sleiter
Naldo Nibbi
New York Post-production Supervisor
John Rogers
Assistant Directors
Gianni Arduini
Giovanni Marino
Luigi Spoletini
Daniele Cama
Script Supervisor
Giorgia Onofri
Shaila Rubin
Maurizio Di Clemente
Costume Designer
Danilo Donati
Key Make-up
Walter Cossu
Enrico Iacoponi
Key Hairstylist
Giusy Bovino
Pentastudio (Rome)
Music Performed by
Accademia Musicale Italiana - AMIT
Music Recording
Fabio Venturi
"Marcia reale" by G. Gabetti; "Belle nuit (Barcarolle)" from "Les Contes d'Hoffmann" by Jacques Offenbach, performed by Montserrat Caballé, Shirley Verret
Leda Lojodice
Tullio Morganti
Re-recording Mixers
Alberto Doni
Claudio Chiossi
Sound Effects
Cine Audio Effects
Marco DR Vittorio
Historical Consultant
Marcello Pezzetti
Roberto Benigni
Guido Orefice
Nicoletta Braschi
Dora Orefice
Giustino Durano

Sergio Bustric
Lydia Alfonsi
Giuliana Lojodice
Amerigo Fontani
Pietro De Silva
Francesco Guzzo
Raffaella Lebboroni
Giorgio Cantarini
Giosué Orefice
Marisa Paredes
Dora's mother
Horst Buchholz
Doctor Lessing
Claudio Alfonsi
Rodolfo's friend
Gil Baroni
Massimo Bianchi
man with key
Jürgen Bohn
German orderly at celebration
Verena Buratti
German auxiliary
Robert Camero
executed German soldier
Ennio Consalvi
General Graziosi
Giancarlo Cosentino
Ernesto, a waiter
Aaron Craig
US driver
Alfiero Falomi
Daniela Fedtke
German auxiliary
Antonio Fommei
school janitor
Stefano Frangipani
Ernst Frowein Holger
German sergeant
Alessandra Grassi
Hannes Helmann
German corporal
Wolfgang Hillinger
German general at celebration
Margareta Lucia Krauss
soldier who feeds children
Patrizia Lazzarini
Maria Letizia
women at Grand Hotel
Concetta Lombardo
Maria Rita Macellari
Carlotta Mangione
Franco Mescolini
school inspector
Francesca Messinese
lady at opera
Inger Lise Middleton
German auxiliary
Andrea Nardi
Günther Pfanzelter
German soldier
Cristiana Porchiella
unmarried schoolmistress
Nino Prester
Gina Rovere
Dora's governess
Laura Rudeberg
German auxiliary
Massimo Salvianti
policeman at map shop
Richard Sammel
James Shindler
transfixed German
Andrea Tidona
Grand Hotel porter

Dirk Karsten Van Den Berg
German soldier
Giovanna Villa
Buena Vista International (UK)

10,477 feet
116 minutes 25 seconds
Dolby digital
Colour by
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011