best films: #6: LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (1998)
Call it overly sentimental or maybe even to lighthearted for a movie in the WWII-movie sub-genre, but what I see every time I watch Life is Beautiful is an entirely genuine – and one of the most heartfelt films of recent memory – piece of cinema, uniquely portrayed through the eyes of an innocent youngster. Sure, Robert Benigni’s Oscar(s) may seem like a waste in hindsight (his follow-up, a bizarre adaptation of Pinocchio, is widely considered one of the worst films in history), but I like to think of 1998 as the beginning and end of his then-illustrious career. He’s so gawkishly delightful as Guido, the goofy Jewish Italian waiter turned doting father, who manages to keep his family’s spirits up through one of Europe’s most trying times. I know conventional wisdom in the blogging world is that 1998’s Best Picture race left everyone in one of two camps – the artsy and passionate fans of Shakespeare in Love versus the Spielbergian historical drama devotees of Saving Private Ryan (and then there were the scattered Blanchett-lovers in favor of Elizabeth and the Malick nuts who went gaga for The Thin Red Line), but I’ve always found myself rooting for the little Italian movie that could.
As far as the most successful elements of the film, I’ll go on record that, though he hasn’t truly proven himself since, Benigni is well-served here as both a performer and a director. The film moves at such a unique and delicate pace, and Guido is such a lovable character, despite his inability to take anything seriously. And real-life wife Nicoletta Braschi is a perfect match for the goofball, an even-tempered voice of reason who provides the most poignant moment in the film (all I need to say is “Barcarolle,” right?). And I’ll be the first one to say that youngster Giorgio Cantarini, playing the hopeful and sunny Giosue, was severely overlooked come 1998’s award season – he played like a seasoned professional amongst the grown-ups in the dire setting of the story. And it wouldn’t be a true Journalistic Skepticism entry without noting the score work by Nicola Piovani. It blended the perfect combination of Italian cinema stylings with the darker tones needed to express the feelings of 1940s Italy.