Last week my father turned 90 years old. As I thought about what to write about this month, I was thinking about my dad. Should I pick his favorite movie? No, because I have not been able to sit through Gunga Din. Should I pick Grumpy Old Men and cut a few jokes at his expense? That hardly feels appropriate. When all was said and done, I decided to go with a movie that is very special to me largely due to the father-son relationship within the movie. Let’s all grab the Kleenex while we talk about Life is Beautiful (1997, dir. Roberto Benigni).
Life Is Beautiful is an Italian film that centers around Guido (Benigni), who is a well-regarded waiter at a posh Italian hotel restaurant. Eventually he crosses paths with a beautiful schoolteacher (Nicoletta Braschi) and is immediately taken with her. He conjures up ways to “run into” her until it becomes a courtship. Eventually they marry and have a child, Giosuè (Giorgio Cantarini). All of this takes place in the years leading up to and the first years of World War II. Guido and his entire family are Jewish. The entire family ends up being sent to a concentration camp where all children and seniors are put to death. Giosuè somehow escapes this fate but is too young to understand what is going on. Guido realizes all too well and must hide his son from the German army and also shield his innocence from learning about what is really going on.
First, the bad stuff. This film is not without controversy as it truly is a lighthearted film set against the most serious of backdrops. In my mind, however, to focus on that removes the entire premise of the film. It was not made to make light of the horrific struggles that Jews endured in the Holocaust. It was made to show that the length and breadth of a father’s love can transcend even that extreme level of awfulness. If you cannot get past that, though, you will not appreciate this film.
At its core, though, Life Is Beautiful is about relationships. The first we get to see is a beautiful story of falling in love and overcoming any obstacles to be with the one you love. The second – and more poignant – is about a father’s love for his son. It is no small task to shield Giosuè from evil that surrounds him. It is this Herculean task (and the resulting climax of the film) that is the reason I cannot remain dry-eyed during any viewing of this film.
Life Is Beautiful remains the only movie I have seen three times in the theater. I am a sucker for any father-son movie. (Big Fish has a similarly teary affect on me, and it ranks 115th overall largely because of that. Field of Dreams is 133.) I believe that is true for anyone who either has a terrible relationship with their father or anyone, like me, who has a great relationship with theirs. Any film where I can see a father’s love pouring out of him on screen will resonate with me. No film resonates in this way more than Life Is Beautiful.
So get past the fact that it is a foreign film and you have to read subtitles. (And do NOT watch the dubbed version. You need to hear Benigni say the things he is saying. It matters.) Do not let the discomfort you might feel about the subject matter keep you away. If you had a regular relationship with your dad, it may not land high on your list, but it is worth a watch. And if you can watch it with your dad – as I did on my third viewing in the theater – seize that opportunity to share this beautiful story with him.
FUN FACT – This is Benigni winning the Oscar for Best Actor that year. It will make you smile.
Just Watch says you can stream Life Is Beautiful for free on HBO/HBO Now, Hoopla, and DirecTV, with several other rent or buy streaming options available.