Tuesday, June 11, 2013
LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL
(October 1998, U.S.)
There was something truly ironic about my watching LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL last night in order to get a fresh peprspective for my blog. The irony was that I'd had a real shitty day from the moment I woke up and it seemed to me, at that particular moment, that life really SUCKED! But anyway...
One of the things I miss most about movies during the 1990s was the mainstream popularity of many subtitled foreign films. Films like CINEMA PARADISO and LA FEMME NIKITA (both 1990), MEDITERRANEO and LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE (both 1992) and IL POSTINO (1994) all captured the attention of American audiences and critics with strong word-of-mouth and solid television promotions. During the "heyday" of these films, I was living in Manhattan and accessibility to these films was everywhere and I tried to take advantage of it as much as I could. Today...well, ask yourself when was the last time you saw a TV commercial for a foreign subtitled film, even a relatively popular one? Studios are too busy pushing the latest comic book hero installment to give a shit about that kind of movie marketing anymore!
By the time I finally saw LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL in December 1998, the critical buzz on this Italian film was too unavoidable to ignore. By that time, my only real glimpse and knowledge of Roberto Benigni was a role he'd played as a cab driver in Rome in Jim Jarmusch's NIGHT ON EARTH (1991). Oh yeah, I'd heard he'd played Inspector Clouseau's son in SON OF THE PINK PANTHER (1993), but really, why would I bother to see crap like that?? So here I was about to get a real taste of the man's comedic and dramatic talent as writer, director and star. In this film, Benigni plays Guido Orefice, a Jewish Italian book shop owner, who must employ his fertile imagination to shield his son from the horrors of internment in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. This powerful story doesn't even really take place until the second act of the film. During the first act, we follow Guido as he seeks to woo the attention of the woman he's fallen for Dora (played by Benigni's real-life wife Nicoletta Braschi). Through his charm, his playfulness, his on-the-spot timing and just a little bit of magic, we watch too would-be stranger fall madly in love with each other. And I must confess, his constant greeting of affection "Buongiorno Principessa!" to the woman he loves never seems to get old with me. It's especially adorable to hear their little boy burst our of a small side table and say the same thing to his mother. Just as in the spirit of Charlie Chaplin (whom Benigni is greatly influenced by), it's a joy to watch the otherwise simple man win the heart of the beautiful woman whom many other men would seek to win themselves.
The joy and happiness of simple and playful love turns to the harsh side of the coin years later when Guido and Dora are married and with a child. Without knowing how or why, Guido and his son Joshua are taken from their home by the Nazis and it's not long after that Dora insists she be placed on the same train with her husband and child that is headed for a concentration camp. Once in the camp, Guido hides their true situation from his son, convincing him that the camp is a complicated game in which Joshua must perform the tasks Guido gives him, earning him points; the first team to reach one thousand points will win a real-live tank. He explains that if he cries, complains that he wants his mother, or says that he is hungry, he will lose points, while quiet boys who hide from the camp guards earn extra points. Guido uses this game to explain features of the concentration camp that would otherwise be scary for a young child: the guards are mean only because they want the tank for themselves; the dwindling numbers of children (who are being killed by the camp guards) are only hiding in order to score more points than Joshua so they can win the game. Despite being surrounded by the misery, sickness, and death at the camp, Joshua does not question this outrageous fiction because of his father's convincing performance and his own childish innocence. This charade is maintained right up until the end, when Guido is tragically executed (away from his son's attention) and the camp is liberated by American soldiers at the end of the war.
LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL is one of those rare films that takes on quite a different meaning for myself (and any other man, I imagine) since becoming a father. To witness the extents that a loving father would go through to shield his son from horrifying evil is absolutely intruiging to watch on screen. For this situation, love, family and the power of one's active imagination serve as the ultimate weapong again forces that seek to destroy good. In the end, Joshua survives the Holocaust and will grow up to manhood having no memory of the same events that will soon make world history. As Joshua himself narrates as a man in the end, his father's sacrifice left him with a priceless gift...and from that moment on, life will be beautiful.
Okay, storytime, boys and girls. Once upon a time, there was a young man who'd been on so many first and second dates for the last year and a half of his life that he was just about ready to give into his frustration and never date again. Then, in December 1998, he met a young woman in his office. "What the hell!", he said and decided to give it just one more try. He got up the balls to ask that young woman out on a date. They met for drinks at a popular restaurant that he (admitedly) had taken many other dates to. Drinks lead to dinner and dinner inevitably lead to a late movie. They went to see LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL at the Paris Theatre just next door to what was once the world famous Plaza Hotel. Here's what that theater looks like, by the way. It's one of the few single screen theaters left in New York City...
Anyway, the guy and girl both loved the movie. In fact, had she NOT loved the movie, the guy may have seriously questioned whether or not he'd go out with her again! They did go out again the very next night and in just two short weeks, the two of them were a full-fledged couple (go figure!). The rest of it was...well, you know how the story goes...guy meets girl, guy takes girl to great Italian film, guy cooks dinner for girl, girl brings over a toothbrush, girl sleeps over EVERY night, girl moves in, first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes me pushing a baby carriage...yada yada yada! Well, my friends, the guy was "Yours Truly", me, ERIC. The girl was (and still is) BETH, my wife. And so it's with great humility (and a small degree of husbandly obligation!) that I dedicate LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL to my wife Beth. I love you.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Guido Orefice (carrying his son through the concentration camp): "You are such a good boy. You sleep now. Dream sweet dreams. Maybe we are both dreaming. Maybe this is all a dream, and in the morning, Mommy will wake us up with milk and cookies. Then, after we eat, I will make love to her two or three times. If I can."