The jovial Guido arrives in an Italian town with dreams of a new life. His wealthy uncle offers him a job (waiting tables at his restaurant) which this free-spirited optimist graciously accepts. Through a series of highly coincidental and comical events, Guido falls deeply in love with Dora, a school teacher—whom he refers to as “princess.” Their sweet romance eventually blooms into marriage and a child of their own. Yet, in the background of this developing romance lurks the atrocities of World War II. As Italian Jews, Guido and Dora soon experience their “fate” under German rule, and are taken to a concentration camp. The two are separated upon arrival, leaving Guido to look after their young son, Giosué, on his own. In an effort to protect the innocent child from the brutal reality of their circumstances, he tells Giosué that it is all a game: the train ride to the camp, the rationed food, the uniforms, the living conditions. Guido works diligently to create this fictitious play-land for his child, enticing him with the ultimate prize—a real army tank of his own.
Positive Elements: Guido’s commitment to his wife and child are immeasurable. His joy, dedication and ultimate sacrifice paint a moving picture of love. Guido’s passion for life and all its experiences place the character trait of optimism on a well-deserved and oft-overlooked pedestal. Aryan mindsets and prejudices of the era are in no way glamorized. Instead, the film reveals the ridiculous nature of embracing the ideology of a superior race.
Spiritual Content: Early on, Guido is introduced to a potentially superstitious “theory” which states, “If you think, it will be.” There are several occasions in which he “practices” this theory. His tone points toward “wishful thinking” rather than any sort of spiritual intervention. In one particular incident, Guido longs to catch the eye of Dora who is seated in the balcony at the opera. Under his breath, he repeats the phrase, “Look at me princess.” Dora eventually graces him with the long awaited glance.
Sexual Content: Minimal. Guido is captivated by Dora’s beauty and spirit early on. While admiring her from a distance one day, he quietly expresses his affection to himself, “I feel like making love to you … not once, but over and over again. But I will never tell you that.” While separated in the concentration camp he utters a similar statement while dreaming of one day being reunited with his wife.
Violent Content: The WWII concentration camp setting mandates a certain amount of psychological horror. Yet, this film minimizes those atrocities in favor of exploring man’s resilience. One night, while returning to his quarters at the concentration camp, Guido comes across a pile of dead bodies. While conceptually overwhelming, sensationalism is again avoided. In the midst of the German retreat, [WARNING: Major Plot Point Revealed] Guido is captured, taken around the corner and shot. Viewers are spared the gruesome details of his murder.
Crude or Profane Language: One mild profanity (jacka–) and one use of the Lord’s name in vain. Jews are referred to in derogatory, but not profane terms on several occasions.
Drug and Alcohol Content: Minor characters drink wine and smoke in social settings on occasion.
Other Negative Elements: Early in the film, Guido demonstrates a curious habit of snatching hats. In a sly manner, he swaps his old hat for one that is new.
Summary: Roberto Benigni is not the first to recount the atrocities of the Holocaust through film. It is a painful piece of history—not soon to be forgotten. While acknowledging and respecting this reality, Benigni manages to do something no other writer has done. He injected this horrific time period with a story of hope, joy and an almost surreal optimism. He captured a love more precious than words. A dedication beyond all expectations. Despite its English subtitles, American audiences are still sure to be drawn in by the underlying brilliance of Life Is Beautiful. Rarely has an Oscar award winning picture been so worthy of such recognition.