Life is Beautiful: on Blu-ray

As one of the crew mentions in this disc’s extras, “Life is Beautiful” is a bit of an oxymoron, not least the juxtaposition of the title’s sentiment with the Nazi concentration camp setting of the second half of the movie. Despite this it is in many ways a joyful film to behold, due in no small part to the hugely energetic and lively contribution of Roberto Benigni who directed, co-wrote and stars in it. Massive critical acclaim including three Oscars in 1999 is richly deserved.

In 1939, Guido Orefice (Benigni) travels to Rome with a friend to wait in his uncle’s glamourous restaurant. On the way there he miraculously saves a beautiful woman called Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), and immediately falls in love with her. Over the course of several daring and slapstick encounters he wins her heart. They marry and have a son, Giosué (Giorgio Cantarini – “Gladiator”), but Fascism and prejudice are on the rise, and like many Jews across the world they ultimately find themselves incarcerated and separated in a terrible prison where the threat of death is ever-present.

Life is Beautiful - on Blu-ray“Life is Beautiful” is definitely a film of two halves, but Guido is a shining beacon of light and hope that spans both. In part one, if you like, he embodies the spirit of Peter Sellers, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, playing the fool but typically outwitting those that would demean him. He is a master of slapstick, effortlessly gliding around the set and perpetually beaming like a lunatic. Sellers’ “The Party” comes to mind, not least in the restaurant scenes where Guido feels like an interloper amongst such distinguished company, but his innate goodness and strength of character outshine virtually all of them.

Disturbing signs of what is to come are insidiously seeping into the picture, such as vandals attacking his uncle’s home and defacing his horse with racist slogans. Move on a few years and shops start barring Jews or members of other minorities, and talk is heard of people considering the hypothetical savings to state expenditure if the handicapped were removed from the equation. The one joyous constant is Guido, living life to the full in spite of the limitations others seek to impose on him and his kin.

The second part’s concentration camp setting makes it considerably harder for Guido to remain upbeat, but when he finds himself separated from Dora and placed in sole charge of his small and defenceless son, he has no choice but to shield Giosué from the atrocities taking place around them. Guido does this by painting their predicament as a game where the participants win points by lying low, not complaining and keeping in line. If they win, he tells his son, a brand new tank is the prize on offer.

Once again, Guido uses his smarts and effortless sense of humour to keep things together, evading the shrewd and piercing gaze of the Nazi officers as his fellow prisoners start to disappear following their ill-fated trips to the shower-block.

For every buoyant scene of love between the couple or father and son, there is a moment of sadness or heartbreak, and an undertone of fear builds as the film progresses. Benigni uses humour to excellent effect to highlight the ridiculous nature of prejudice, and anti-Semitism in particular. This is a wonderful film, both full of life and hope but also delivering a very serious message that one sadly fears will never be surplus to requirement.

The new Blu-ray transfer is pretty good, possibly not the sharpest picture ever but it magnificently captures the colour and superb Roman architecture witnessed in the first half of the movie, and radiates the grime and concrete drabness of the prison in the latter stages of the story.

The disc’s special features include:

  • “Revisiting Life is Beautiful 15 Years On”
  • “Making Of...”
  • Interview with Roberto Benigni and Nicoletta Braschi
  • “B-roll”
  • Trailer

There is plenty of content to get stuck into, covering both the making of the film and the issues it deals with. It does not feel like there is much continuity between the pieces but that is a relatively minor quibble.

“Life is Beautiful” (1997) is out now courtesy of Studio Canal. The running time is 116 minutes approx, certificate ‘PG’, and the movie retails for £24.99 on Blu-ray, or less from www.culttvstore.com

 

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