Life is Beautiful is the best film about the Holocaust because it doesn’t show the atrocities so openly and graphically. In fact for the whole first half of the movie, you wouldn’t even know it’s about the Holocaust. It is such a sweet, funny and beautifully shot movie that when the darker theme does emerge, it manages to strike much more of a chord, having such a bigger impact as a result.
That doesn’t mean that the movie’s theme is taken with a light touch. In fact, moments stay with you for much longer because of how subtle they are. The references to anti-Semitism throughout the first half of the movie are slight and more of a background element but they do strike a chord. When our central characters are taken to a concentration camp, the difference is so striking that you don’t need to see gas chambers or crematorium to feel disgusted about the treatment of these individuals. Its horror through contrast and its extremely effective.
The actual victory of the movie is the central premise throughout the time at the concentration camp. This is the Holocaust through the eyes of a little boy who believes it’s a game. Tricked so thoroughly and effectively by his very clever and resourceful father, when he does manage to get a glimpse or even over-hear the real events that are occurring, we are reminded that this isn’t a game and that he is living by a thread.
There are moments of horror and truth that are so much more effective because they aren’t strewn throughout the film. A chance encounter with a doctor from the first half of the film, or the slow walk back through the fog, resulting in a horrific wrong-turn are all stark reminders of what occurred in the camps but resonate much more because they are not the central premise of the movie.
This incredible balancing trick is handled incredibly by the director and central actor, Roberto Benigni. He is an Italian Charlie Chaplin, mixing cheeky, lovable chap with some fantastic slapstick comedy from the beginning. Having known about the premise from the beginning, I wasn’t sure I was watching the right film when I saw a car with no brakes drive through a hedge in classic “Carry-On” style, resulting in a funny sight gag using a Nazi Salute and a case of mistaken identity. It’s this mix of comedy and drama that creates a bizarre but perfect mix, even when we finally do enter the concentration camp.
Add to that the sweetest young boy to grace the screen and you have characters you deeply care about. The central roles are so important and the casting is perfect for every role, down to the guard who is the centre of probably the funniest moment of the whole movie.
You wouldn’t expect comedy in a movie about such a terrible event but it just highlights the innocence lost, particularly because we are seeing it through the eyes of this young boy. When the ending does develop and emerge, we are so much more affected by it because you don’t know what is going to happen or who will survive the camp, if anyone.
Overall, Life is Beautiful is a movie that perfectly represents and captures the events of the Holocaust without relying on the graphic, disturbing imagery that is synonymous with movies such as Schindler’s List. It has a unique approach to the material which never trivialises but actually manages to highlight the horror even more by placing innocence, comedy and a love story central to the whole movie. The greatest Holocaust movie ever – as well as one of the best movies ever made too.
Rating – 5!
(1-3 – awful/avoid. 4-6 – average. 7-8 – good. 9-10 – fantastic.)