Films My Father Loves: In spite of everything, ‘Life is Beautiful’

Feb. 1, 2023, 4:18 p.m.

Welcome to “Films My Father Loves.” One of the first things I expressed passion for as a teenager was movies, and the second I showed it, my dad latched onto it as a way to connect to me. Now, I try to connect with him over the movies that stuck with him and influenced how he raised me.

When I told my dad I was reviewing “Life is Beautiful,” he beamed and told me I should talk about chicken, even though I was already planning to.

I don’t remember this that well, but, according to my dad, I was a picky eater as a kid. I don’t know how drastic this situation was. However, I do have a memory of having my first pickle around the age of 13. After years of vehemently avoiding them, I forgot to take one out of my In-N-Out burger and, from then on, just stuck with it.

Anyway, to combat this habit of only eating ingredients I had already consumed in the past, every time we would go to dinner and try something new, my dad would tell me it was chicken.

Shrimp? Chicken.

Cow tongue? Chicken.

Lamb? Chicken.

They were lies but they were for my own benefit. I very much do enjoy cow tongue now (I still have a slight fear of shrimp for totally unrelated reasons). One of the best things about being a kid is being able to live in your own little world and one of the greatest tools as a parent is the ability to so easily craft one of these worlds for your child.

It was while watching Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful,” a 1997 comedy set in fascist Italy, that I realized this skill to craft a world for your child wasn’t just a thing my dad had. It was a common parental technique and for good reason, too.

The film follows Guido, a Jewish-Italian man whose entire life plays out like an improv comedy sketch. From accidentally egging the city official who has to sign off on his bookstore to riding a horse into the same man’s wedding and whisking away his fiancé, Guido’s life is spur-of-the-moment, and everything he does is infused with an optimistic comedy. That childish outlook remains strong as he enters fatherhood. In fact, it comes out even stronger when he and his family are forced into an internment camp during World War II. Even in the worst of circumstances, Guido never succumbs to hopelessness or outward despair. However, to protect his son from the reality of their situation, every word out of his mouth becomes a lie.

“Life is Beautiful” is … well, beautiful. The humor is timeless and Benigni’s performance is so energetic it’s contagious. It’s impossible not to root for Guido, even before you realize where the story is headed. In spite of the fact that his son doesn’t come in until halfway through the movie, you find so much joy in their relationship within the 50 minutes they have together. 

Outside of the incredible optimism, it is this father-son relationship that really defines the film. Guido is a character who always puts love first, which the movie establishes early on with his attempts of wooing his future wife. But his devotion to family peaks when his son Giosuè comes into his life and becomes his everything. Upon their entrance to the internment camp, Guido pretends to speak German just so he can act as “interpreter” and tell Giosuè that the camp is a game and that the backbreaking labor is simply a way to gain points. As all the other kids start to disappear from the camp, the game transitions to one of hiding. What is obvious to the audience and the other men of the camp goes over Giosuè’s innocent head.

With a story that would have warranted a severely dramatic take from any other filmmaker, Benigni decides on the opposite approach. The tragedy of the Holocaust and the taking of life serve as a reminder of why life is so valuable in the first place. The hurt from that dark stain on human history stems from the fact that life is incredibly pure and magnificent. He celebrates life in the face of the worst possible circumstances to demonstrate the inherent beauty of being alive. 

I see a lot of Guido in my dad and not enough in myself. I remember my family coming up to campus for family weekend and having to take them to Arrillaga because every other dining hall was full. My dad looked out over the balcony and said, “Man, if I was born here I would’ve gone to a school like this,” and I just stood silent, not knowing how to respond. My dad thinks so highly of life, in a way he almost shouldn’t if you base it on the cards he’s been dealt. By ten, he had experienced more hardship than I have in my 21 years. Yet, one of us is constantly beaming in the face of day-to-day life and the other lets out a sad sigh when Wilbur runs out of oat milk.

It’s not a sense of entitlement when I let a minor thing get me down but rather a lack of acknowledgment for the things that are there, the beauty of life that is there to be appreciated but can oftentimes get ignored. To say life is beautiful is not to say that it is perfect or easy or painless but that none of those other things can suffocate the beauty that exists to save us from the worst of life, and that is a sentiment to hold onto.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

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