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'Life' Almost Lived to Its Fullest

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 30, 1998

  Movie Critic

Life is Beautiful Roberto Benigni co-wrote, directed and stars in "Life is Beautiful." (Miramax)

Roberto Benigni
Roberto Benigni;
Nicoletta Braschi;
Giustino Durano;
Sergio Bini Bustric;
Marisa Paredes
Running Time:
1 hour, 55 minutes
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent
Best Actor, Best Foreign Film

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Roberto Benigni puts his comic ingenuity to the ultimate test in "Life Is Beautiful," a Chaplinesque fable that begins in the sunny fields of Tuscany and ends in the shadows of a mythical concentration camp somewhere in Italy. "It is a simple story, but not an easy one to tell," as the narrator so rightly observes.

Renowned in Europe for his madcap comedies, Benigni enters unknown territory with this darker work but he uses familiar tools: outlandish stunts, elaborate gags, an infectious spirit and agile body and the nervous energy of a Starbucks junkie. And for much of the time, they serve him as well here as they did in larks like "Johnny Stecchino."

Benigni, who also co-wrote and directed the film, plays lovable, zany Guido, a cockeyed optimist who always sees the silver lining but never the cloud brooding on the horizon. Guido, an assimilated Italian Jew, shares that trait with the Jewish aristocrats in Vittorio De Sica's "Garden of the Finzi-Continis." He ignores the mounting antisemitism and goes about business as usual.

Blissful ignorance works well enough in the first half of the film, which depicts Guido's humorous pursuit of a schoolteacher, Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, who is also Benigni's real-life wife). When the story resumes several years in the future, it's too late to escape, and without warning Guido, wife Dora and son Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini) are crowded onto a train bound for a Nazi concentration camp.

When they arrive, the children are separated from their parents, but Guido manages to hide Giosue in the men's barracks. To protect the saucer-eyed tyke from the truth, he convinces the boy that they've enrolled in a vastly complicated game and must accrue a thousand points to win first prize: an actual army tank. But all will be lost if Giosue is discovered by the mean loud guys or gals.

Written by Benigni and Vincenzo Cerami, the story satirizes the notion of racial superiority and ridicules the Germans and their Italian brethren for their humorless, graceless, goose-stepping pea-brains. Yet it never understates their ruthlessness or the madness of their mission.

Scrawny, weak-chinned and popeyed, Guido bears not the slightest resemblance to Aryan ideals of physical perfection, and this is something Benigni has a great deal of fun with. Actually he looks something like a cross between a satyr and Ernest P. Worrell and there's something of both in his frantic character.

As the movie's director, he remains in high gear whether the scene calls for necking in a haystack or cowering under a Nazi jackboot. So audiences haven't time to savor the sweetest moments, much less reflect upon man's inhumanity to man. That's not to say that he lacks reverence for his subject.

While it celebrates the triumph of humor, invention and the human spirit, "Life Is Beautiful" is not the transporting experience it might have been. Benigni knows how to make us laugh, but he has not yet figured out how to make us cry.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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