Roberto Benigni, Italy's hottest film star, three years ago decided to inject his persona -- Charlie Chaplin crossed with Robin Williams -- into the edgiest environment he and co-screenwriter Vincenzo Cerami could imagine. The pair, much to the chagrin of some observers, thus forged ahead with their concept for a comedy set in a concentration camp. Exuberant physical shtick and silly verbal jousting met the Holocaust.
The results, in lesser hands, might have been unfunny and disastrously offensive. "Life is Beautiful" ("La Vita E Bella") instead is a humane masterpiece, a sensitively told story, alternately hilarious and melancholy, of one man's attempt to shield his young son from Nazi horrors.
Benigni, introduced to American audiences via Jim Jarmusch's "Down By Law" and "Night On Earth" (not to mention Blake Edwards' awful "Son of the Pink Panther"), is Guido, a rural dreamer who has come to the Tuscan town of Arezzo in 1939 with his poet pal Ferruccio (Sergio Bustric). During the film's slapstick-intensive opening segment, the country bumblers fight with malfunctioning car brakes, masquerade as visiting dignitaries in a parade honoring Mussolini and literally bump into pretty teacher Dora (Nicoletta Braschi).
Guido finds digs -- at the home of a man whose twin sons are named Benito and Adolfo -- and a job as a hotel waiter, but fascism soon rears its ugly head. He fights back with swaggering good humor, turning a lecture on the Italian race manifesto (supposed to be delivered by a government official) into a giggling demonstration of the inherent superiority of Italian-made earlobes, belly buttons, biceps, triceps and hips. "I'll make my Aryan exit," he exclaims, as the real inspector arrives at the school.
Benigni's film moves into more uncomfortable territory during its second act, after Guido has settled into family life with his wife, Dora, and their 7-year-old son Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini). They tool around on a bicycle and hang out at their family-owned bookstore, and the father jokes that a sign on a bakery -- "no Jews or dogs allowed" -- will be countered by one of his own creation, forbidding spiders and Visigoths from entering their shop.
All three are transported by train to a concentration camp, and Guido is forced to begin a far more complex ruse, going to great comic pains to explain to Giosue that their trip has been planned, and that the imprisonment is in fact an elaborate game. In a segment sure to be screened during a Benigni salute in the future, Guido pretends to translate into Italian a barking German soldier's list of commandments. He instead goofs on the speaker and makes up the rules and rewards for an imaginary competition, the winner of which will receive a real military tank.
Guido later exaggerates the goose-stepping of his captors, laughs off his son's fears of death in the ovens, and describes the resultant mist as evidence of their entrapment in a particularly vivid dream. In one tender moment, the two take control of the public-address system and deliver personal messages to Dora.
Benigni maintains his difficult balancing act right up to the conclusion, when the healing humor gives way to an overwhelming sadness. "Life is Beautiful," despite the atrocities that are ever-present if mostly off-screen, nevertheless remains a film steeped in hope. Even the worst evil, the filmmaker seems to be saying, can't conquer the human spirit.