The international language of love!
Over Valentines Day, this editor treated his bride of eighteen years to a special Valentine present, doing so on the advice of someone very special: Pope John Paul II. Forget Siskel and Ebert, the Holy Father knows a winner when he sees it. We're speaking of the fact that the Pope was presented a special private showing of "La Vita e Bella" a few weeks ago and raved about it, recommending it to all. Evidently the staid Academy also took notice for this Italian film made the final cut of the top five movies up for an Oscar as Best Picture this year, as well as six other Academy Award nominations. Knowing that the Holy Father loved it, we realized we couldn't go wrong. So we drove down to the local movieplex where "Life is Beautiful" was playing. Unfortunately getting your teen kids to see this may take some coaxing. We failed to convince them they should see it and so our teen age sons scrambled into another theater where an action pic was playing as we settled down to see just how great this movie was, starring, directed by, produced and co-written by Roberto Benigni. Over the past several decades we've been enthralled with some films that remain with you long after it's over, but, like time, memories fade and we forget the experience. Not so with "Life is Beautiful!" In a word, Bellisima!!!
Never has a film touched us the way this masterpiece did. You name the emotion, it seared right to the heart. From slapstick comedy to mistaken identities, from heartfelt love to lamentable sorrow, from intrigue to introspection, from hauntingly beautiful to the harrowing tragedy of the Holocaust. This movie had it all.
"Life is Beautiful" paints a tableau of the survival of innocence in a world filled with horror. We had seen "Schindler's List" several years ago and the graphic violence and "preaching method" of Stephen Spielberg always left us with the feeling that we were "propagandized" and manipulated. We all know the Nazi holocaust was one of the most vile, worst tragedies to ever befall mankind, but that movie and many movies on that subject are written from the Jewish point of view that they were the only ones who suffered and we'll never know how much. Also, it seems they are intent on hammering it through unmercifully through graphic images and, in so doing through the celluloid avenue, manage to manipulate one to pattern one's thinking directly to their point of view, always instilling a guilt-complex on those who seemingly didn't stop it all immediately. This is the tired refrain we hear over and over in accusations against Pope Pius XII who has been so unfairly belittled without anyone providing one iota of evidence that his Holiness acted inappropriately. Happily, those who know, particularly influential Jewish luminaries, have come forward to substantiate Pius' innocence and, in fact, have provided proof that he did all in his power to help their cause, cleverly sheltering many from the Holocaust. As we all know, had he spoken out publicly and more forcefully at the time he would have endangered the lives of countless more millions. Discretion was the better part of valor and Pius was on top of it at all times, always extolling and encouraging human dignity. And so was the 47 year-old Benigni who used every second to portray the triumph of human dignity. As someone once said, "Physical suffering is horrible to watch and endure. But perhaps the greater horror is the callousness of average people who ignore or trivialize their neighbor's suffering." Well, Benigni and his co-writer Vincenzo Cerami didn't flinch in depicting this horror, but they did it without plastering the screen with sickening images that would shock. They reached the heart and soul with the minimum of shots, the minimum of shock; and yet one was shocked in a more profound way than in "Schindler's List". The topic and trials of Benigni's life and his dedication to protecting his family make this movie the most complete and heartrending film on the holocaust ever! This film goes right to the heart of the matter that no amount of evil can overcome if we persevere in holding out hope in the face of despair.
This movie exudes hope, love and triumph. It is the story of the Passion, Death and Resurrection. Just as Jesus touched us all, "Life is beautiful" echoes the trials Our Lord promised we would all encounter, but that we would be triumphant if we trusted and held out hope. This film touched every chord of emotion. We laughed...from chuckles to guffaws! We felt genuine anger and pathos, cried genuine tears of sorrow and then joy. Seldom has a film's title been so appropos for everything the Holy Father has been expressing in his encyclicals, Apostolic Exhortations and Letters, in his books and homilies speaks of the Sanctity of Life and this film truly sanctifies life. The Pope especially appreciated how Benigni used humor as an affirmation of human dignity. Outside of direct prayer, it was the kindest, most effective finite weapon possible in confronting the terror of the holocaust and those terrible times. The sacrifices Benigni made parallel the triumph of the human spirit exemplified by the early martyrs whose love was so great for Christ that they would give their lives. So also in this movie in which Guido Orifice, the character Benigni plays, is willing to put his life on the line to save his family, "Greater love than this no one has, that one lay down his life for his friends" (John 15: 13).
This editor has always been considered pretty much a macho kind of person exhibiting very little schmaltz or sentimentality, but I can proudly say I shed more than a few tears over this movie; cleansing tears that we all need to let flow. You'll feel better about mankind and our own American roots after seeing this movie. Without giving away the plot, it is set in Italy at from the mid thirties in the time of the rise of Mussolini to the Nazi occupation and liberation by American GI's. There is no English until the last few minutes of the film. Everything is subtitled but we can guarantee you a few minutes into the film you'll follow along beautifully. If ever a picture deserved Best Picture and Best Actor and Best Writer, this is it. Benigni has been compared to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but honestly we have not seen the likes of this man nor the breadth of his ability and the mark he will leave on thespians and audiences everywhere in this century. Seldom has anyone ever captured the screen with the magnetism he propells onto the celluloid canvas of emotions. Almost immediately you unwittingly become him as you feel with him the joys, ecstasies and crosses that he encounters, never once expressing anything but hope and the highest echelon of human dignity as God intended. We've had a few opportunities to see various television interviews with this man and he'll win you over immediately. How many "celebrities" can you name who exude humility and genuine sincerity? We can think of one: Roberto Benigni. His supporting cast is nothing to sneeze at either. The love of his life that makes it so much more beautiful are Dora, played so convincingly by Nicoletta Braschi, who is, we understand, his real-life wife. She's not a raving Hollywood beauty but her radiance will enchant you. So also will the masterful performance by young Giorgio Cantarini. He can't be more than ten years old, if that, but he exhibits a talent far beyond the older veteran actors in America. He plays Guido and Dora's son Giosue. The rest of the supporting cast, whether "good" guys, rascals, or bad guys, are very good and complement the picture immensely.
We could go on and on raving about this masterpiece film that, we think, should be ranked with the likes of "Citizen Kane" and "Casablanca" as all-time great classics. Never has a movie said so much in so few words and simple images. Though we are not in the genre to recommend commercial movies in this column, we will make a definite exception in this case. In fact, we even think it would be alright to see during Lent for it will restrengthen your Lenten zeal. Do yourself a favor, share something very, very special with those you love and see this film. Never mind the subtitles, this movie reaches out and touches all through the international language of love!