With November behind us, I've spent a bit of time thinking about the world wars, and I want to share my new favourite war movie. This story definitely departs from typical war films. I think the narrator best explained what makes this film so unique at the opening of the movie when he said, "Like a fable, there is sorrow, and like a fable, it is full of wonder and happiness." Even though Life Is Beautiful is about the concentration camps in Italy in World War II, it is also a kind of fairy tale.
To being with, the film has a hero, Guido, who fights for what he wants out of life with wit, whimsy, and imagination. Because he is so determined and spirited, he manages to make magic happen all around him. He manages to win over his princess by having faith in his own willpower and imagination, and things manage to fall together for him. In one way, he is favoured by fate, but in another way, he makes fate turn in his favour. He knows how to win everyone over with humility and charm. But the hero, the princess, and their son end up having to battle an unimaginable evil, the Nazi party. Guido doesn't fight the party through violence, but by willpower, perseverance, and imagination. He convinces his son that the concentration camp is really a special game, and this gives his son the strength to carry on. He finds ways to encourage his wife, too, by hijacking the camp speaker system to tell her he loves her and by using a gramophone to play their song into the courtyard. Even though this is a war movie, it has very strong fairy tale themes and patterns, which make it whimsical and unique among movies about the war.
I was surprised to find this movie was made in 1997. The settings and wardrobe are very appropriate, the music is the type of very conventional instrumental background music you would expect to hear in an older movie, and the pacing and film quality felt older, but I found it added to the ambiance of the film. The only clue that this film was not older was the cinematography, which was sophisticated without being distracting.
Another thing that was definitely historically accurate were the attitudes toward women. Guido loves Dora and is one of the most compassionate men in the film, and yet he manages to sexually harass, stalk, and abduct his love interest, Dora, without losing the favour of the audience and without Dora addressing his behaviour. Other characters were more brutish, including her mother and fiancé, who don't seem to care about whether she is doing what she wants with her life, but she manages to hold her own most of the time by appealing to 'gilded cage' attitudes and behaviours and playing up her diva side. Even though she isn't a complete doormat, it was frustrating watching her avoid actually addressing issues with others in the film.
I really enjoyed the acting in this film. Little Joshua, the son of Guido and Dora, is a real character and knows just how to push the buttons of the audience. Guido himself is very persuasive, especially when he has to play himself pretending to believe the concentration camp was a game for Joshua's sake. You can see him being persuasive but also being held back by his own anxiety.
One of the most interesting characters in the film, who I liked but who ended up being quite a mystery, was Dr. Lessing. Before the concentration camp, when Guido worked as a waiter, he and Guido would exchange riddles. After Guido was sent to the concentration camp he found out Dr. Lessing was a doctor for the Nazis. I had the impression Dr. Lessing was going to help Guido and his family, but when Guido and Dr. Lessing had the chance to talk, he only asked him a riddle: "Fat, fat, ugly, ugly, all yellow in reality, if you ask me what I am, I answer, 'Quack, quack.' Walking along I go, 'Poo poo.' What am I? Tell me true." He needed this riddle answered for a veterinarian friend in Vienna. I couldn't tell if he needed this information to help Guido's family or why he was so upset about it. Perhaps he didn't intend on helping Guido, or maybe he was driven mad. The director has his own answer to the riddle, but I think if you see this film, you may want to come to your own conclusion.
In summary, this film is both lighthearted and incredibly dark. It's a great tear-jerker that will make you think and win your heart. I highly recommend this film classic and I hope you check it out.