Views from the Sofa’s 100 Greatest Scenes is a list of the 100 greatest moments in the movies. This could be long introductions, moments of action or great dialogue between characters. The scenes are in no particular order and come from many different types of movies.
The Holocaust is a tricky subject to do correctly and even more so when the movie tries to do so with a lighter touch. Life is Beautiful takes the subject very seriously and it never feels like the movie is comedy, although star, writer and director Roberto Benigni plays the first half for laughs. The film takes a darker turn halfway through but this scene is a stand-out as a moment of humour at one the darkest points in history.
Greatest Scene Number 34: Life is Beautiful – The Rules
Almost as if by chance, this scene fits perfectly into Benigni’s Guido’s plan. Guido is lying to his son about the concentration camp and explaining that it is actually one huge game which if they win will get them a tank as first prize. It is lie made more believable by the “rules” which Benigni’s character tells a room full of confused Italians purely for the benefit of his son.
That is the first magical element of the scene. His son is amazed and amused by the rules which Guido is “translating” however the rest of the room looked baffled by what the German soldier is supposedly saying. It is just one great example of how creative Benigni’s character is, a trait which becomes more and more apparent as the film progresses.
The second key element of the scene is the translations themselves. The scene is not just great for the absurdity of the rules, including “don’t cry, don’t ask for food and don’t ask for your Mother” but also the way Benigni manages to match-up the rules he is conveying with the motions of the soldier, like “losers get a sign on their back saying “jackass” or “I ate too many lollipops.”
You may not laugh uproariously at this scene but you can’t help but smile as the rules are explained. There is a harsh contrast which is lost in the original version of the movie though. The clip above shows what the German soldier is saying, as well as subtitling and translating what Guido is telling the room instead. In the original version, if you don’t speak German, you won’t know what is actually being said by the soldier.
This means that as you laugh at the “jackass sign” line, you don’t realise that in contrast the guard is explaining that people who disobey will be executed. It is a great example of that fine balance between the light and dark of the subject that Benigni manages to tread throughout the whole film, creating one of the better and more surprising versions of the Holocaust caught on-screen.
Overall, Robert Benigni’s Life is Beautiful is a great balance between humour and one of the darkest points in human history and this scene conveys that perfectly. The “rules” that Guido tells his son and subsequently the whole room too may be ridiculous but they mask a much harsher truth being conveyed by the guards who run the camp.