Life is Beautiful - * * * *

Life is Beautiful is a rare treat: a lighthearted comedy that tackles a very serious subject without committing the sins of being disrespectful, or, even worse, humorless. It combines a charming romance with a dash of farce, stirs in a little poignancy, and ends up a very enjoyable movie. It’s an Italian film, but don’t let that discourage you. Subtitle-phobes will be missing a wonderful experience.

Life is Beautiful opens as a sweet romantic comedy, with the clownish, but good natured Guido (Roberto Benigni) arriving in a rustic Italian town to work as a waiter for his uncle. The year is 1939, and Guido literally stumbles into the girl of his dreams, Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). Their romance seems to be picture perfect, with only one stumbling block: she’s already engaged to another man. Can Guido overcome the odds and win his girl? What do you think?

However, five years later, things have taken a turn for the worse in Italy. The fascists have stepped up their race initiatives, which is bad news for the Jewish Guido and his new son Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini), who are rounded up and shipped off to a concentration camp.

Unable to protect his boy in any other way, Guido attempts to shield his young son from the horrors of the labor camp. He pretends that everything is all an elaborate game, with points awarded for such tasks as hiding, being brave and being very very quiet.

As you can tell from the description, Life is Beautiful has two very different tones, but manages to excel at both of them. As a romantic comedy, it is sweet and funny. As a bitersweet tale of hope amid despair, it is touching.

Roberto Benigni’s work here has been compared with some of the best of Chaplin’s, and it is easy to see why. He is able to run the gamut of comic expression, from slapstick to farce, with a warm-hearted feeling that celebrates his downtrodden hero’s “triumph of the underdog” spirit.

Life is Beautiful treads a thin line when it turns its attentions to the Holocaust. However, it is able to successfully navigate the minefield, without demeaning the gravity of the horrors involved, nor without losing its humorous edge that allows you to smile through the tears.

With Life is Beautiful, Benigni has created a triumphant, but bittersweet comedy. It’s quite simply one of the most enjoyable times I’ve had at the movies this year.

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