Italy’s most gifted comedian, Roberto Benigni, achieves mixed results with his latest actor-director outing, “Life Is Beautiful,” a bittersweet tragicomedy set during World War II about an erudite buffoon, his sweetheart and the infant son he lovingly shelters from the horrors of Nazism. Benigni’s films have never quite lived up to the popular star’s formidable performing skills, and this most ambitious project yet is no exception. Sluggish, uneven and lacking in rhythm, it nonetheless has enough pathos and winning humor to ensure national success and a share of foreign sales.
Budgeted at roughly twice the average cost of a local comedy, the $6.5 million feature also strives to im-prove on the genre’s normally modest production standards. But while the ideas and commitment behind the project command admiration, the result is compromised by sloppy writing — Benigni scripted with regular collaborator Vincenzo Cerami — and limp editing. More so than in his other films, one is left with the frustrating desire to see Benigni’s comic verve in the hands of a director with greater control and economy.
Story consists of two barely reconciled halves. Relocating in the late ’30s from the country to a large Tuscan town, exuberant Guido (Benigni) instantly falls for sweet, upper-class schoolteacher Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). While charmed by her clownish suitor and his comical ruses to keep popping up in her path, Dora remains dutifully true to her long-term fiance, a pompous town official considered a more seemly match by her society-matron mother (Marisa Paredes). Learning of the impending marriage as he waits tables at their official engagement reception, Guido literally charges in to rescue her.
Punctuating the fairy-tale romance are plenty of rumblings about the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism, manifested both humorously and by more dramatic means such as the attacks against Guido’s Jewish uncle (Giustino Durano). But the script is far too long-winded in establishing this relative calm before the storm, and the opening hour before the lovers are united could do with serious tightening.
Pic jumps ahead five years to wartime, when Guido and Dora are married with a son, Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini). The boy’s questions about anti-Jewish sentiment are made light of by his father, until the pair are hauled off to a concentration camp. Not being of Jewish heritage, Dora is left behind, but she insists on boarding the train with her family, only to be put in a separate camp for women.
From the outset of the horrific ordeal, which lasts through the end of the war, Guido shields Giosue from the experience by cleverly incorporating everything from the barking Nazi guards, the squalid sleeping quarters and his tattooed prisoner number, to the shortage of food and the absence of Dora, into an elaborate game in which father and son compete with other “contestants” for points in the hope of winning an armored tank. Old people — Guido’s uncle among them — and children at the camp gradually are exterminated, forcing Guido to invent new rules about hiding in silence to save Giosue.
Even while giving vent to his natural propensity for comic mugging, Benigni brings surprising depth and poignancy to the desperate father trying to mask his own fear and exhaustion and ensure that at least part of his family is reunited unharmed after the war. The limited dramatic range shown by Braschi (also Benigni’s off-screen wife) makes her desolation less affecting.
Despite the melancholy second half, this is still primarily a comedy, albeit one with less opportunities for its star to showcase his bravura physical skills than in previous films or live shows. Even so, there are some in-tant-classic Benigni set pieces here, such as Guido’s whirlwind waitering course or his lecture on Aryan supremacy while standing in for a fascist school inspector. Along with the pic’s Chaplinesque influences, Benigni includes homages to Roberto Rossellini and Massimo Troisi, his co-director and co-star in 1984’s “Nothing Left to Do But Cry.”
Aside from veteran designer Danilo Donati’s costumes, production values could be sharper. Lenser Tonino Delli Colli’s mainly static camera makes the film visually rather flat, while the general push in script and direction to avoid excessive sentimentality is undermined by Nicola Piovani’s syrupy score.