Monday, September 17, 2007

LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (1998): Notes for Mars Hill Video Club

Life Is Beautiful (La Vita è Bella) is one of the most daring films ever produced. It is daring in the sense that it takes a tragic event – the “Holocaust” or extermination of the Jews during the Second World War and turns it into a comedy. Tragedy and Comedy are often portrayed in terms of frowning and smiling masks. Life Is Beautiful manages to maintain the comic smile during the good times and the horrible times.

Like Casablanca, Life is Beautiful is a story of love and war. Unlike Victor and Ilsa Laszlo, the main characters, Guido and Dora and their son Giosué, do not escape the fascist grip and are deported to a German-run death camp. Guido’s love for his wife and son miraculously endures the trials of the Nazi “final solution” of wiping out the Jews of Europe. Life Is Beautiful can compared with another movie of about the same time, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). Schindler’s List is also a tale of heroism in the German death camps, in this case of a businessman who risks his own life to save as many Jews as possible. Schindler’s List is shot in black and white, while Life Is Beautiful is very colorful at the beginning and then becomes gray-green toward the end.

Some critics argue that Life Is Beautiful trivializes the deaths of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust. Looked at another way, Life Is Beautful refuses to grant the “last laugh” to the oppressors. It suggests that there is a greater story, a story of love, that cannot be extinguished by the worst that man can do to man. In this sense, it has a lot in common with the Gospel story of triumph over sin and death through the Cross of Christ.

Historical Background
Life is Beautiful is set in Italy. Italians are often characterized by a happy-go-lucky personality. Sadly, in the 1920s and 30s, Italy was taken over by the fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. Mussolini promoted the same racist views as Adolf Hitler, and it is in that setting that Guido and his father are sent to a camp. Although it is not quite clear where the camp is located, the entrance gate is reminiscent of German camps like Dachau. The camp, as portrayed in Life is Beautiful, is not as grim as the reality. However, it is true that often the healthy men and women were put to work, while old people and children were sent to die in the gas chambers. Guido understands this and so he hides Giosué.

Major Characters
Guido, pronounced “Giido” (Roberto Benigni) – a happy-go-lucky Italian Jew who gets sent to a concentration camp
Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni’s real life wife) – Guido’s wife who, while not a Jew, follows him into the camp.
Giosué [Joshua] (Giorgia Cantarini) – their young son who trusts his father’s stories
Doctor Lessing (Horst Buchholz) – a German doctor for whom word plays are more important than human life

Famous Lines
Guido: Buongiorno, Principessa (“Good day, Princess”)

Giosué: "No Jews or Dogs Allowed." Why do all the shops say, "No Jews Allowed"?
Guido: Oh, that. "Not Allowed" signs are the latest trend! The other day, I was in a shop with my friend the kangaroo, but their sign said, "No Kangaroos Allowed," and I said to my friend, "Well, what can I do? They don't allow kangaroos."
Giosué: Why doesn't our shop have a "Not Allowed" sign?
Guido: Well, tomorrow, we'll put one up. We won't let in anything we don't like. What don't you like?
Giosué: Spiders.
Guido: Good, I don't like visigoths. Tomorrow, we'll get sign: "No Spiders or Visigoths Allowed."

Guido: (pretending to translate a German concentration camp guard's instructions to the new prisoners) The game starts now. You have to score 1,000. If you do that, you take home a tank with a big gun. Each day we will announce the scores from that loudspeaker. The one who has the fewest points will have to wear a sign that says "Jackass" on his back. There are three ways to lose points. One, turning into a big crybaby. Two, telling us you want to see your mommy. Three, saying you're hungry and want something to eat.

Giosue: “Mama, we won, we won!” (The last line of the script.)

Discussion Questions
1. How do you react to this film? Do you laugh or cry? Do you find yourself laughing at the wrong moments, e.g., when Guido is killed.

2. When you first meet Guido, does he seem the kind of man you would call a hero? By the end of the movie, have you changed your mind? How so?

3. What do you think of Guido’s story that imprisonment is a big game? Do you think he should tell his son the truth?

4. In Casablanca, most of the people are despairing or desperate to get out to America. How does Guido keep up his spirits? Is he a fool, or is he motivated by a kind of desperate love for his wife and son?

5. What do you make of the last words of the film, when Giosué says to his mother “We won!” Do you feel like there has been a victory, given the father’s death? Recall St. Paul’s words, “Death, where is your sting?” and “We are more than conquerors through Him who died for us” (Romans 8:37).

6. If you saw the short feature The Parable, what do you see as the similarities between the two films. Does Guido seem to be a kind of clown? Do you think Christians will be considered “foolish” by many people (see 1 Corinthians 1:18)?

The Mars Hill Video Club is sponsored by the African Areopagus Society at Uganda Christian University. It is concerned with the intersection of video arts and Christian faith.

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