Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Life is Beautiful (1998)

     Over Thanksgiving break, I bought “Life is Beautiful” on Blu-ray for four dollars at a Black Friday sale at Best Buy. Darn good deal. Weird thing is, I hadn’t seen the movie yet. But from what I had heard, it was great. “Life is Beautiful” is one of three acclaimed World War Two movies from 1998, the other two being “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Thin Red Line”. But “Life is Beautiful”, unlike those two films, isn’t about combat—it’s about Jewish families at a concentration camp. That could be a pretty hard setting to make a movie about—especially a comedy like this movie is! But director/writer/actor Roberto Benigni, who won an Oscar for his performance, somehow pulled it off, and we’re going to look into it more today.

     Benigni stars as the lead character Guido, a Jew living in Italy trying to start his own business, a bookstore. From the beginning of the movie, we see that he’s trying to win the heart of Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), a local schoolteacher who Guido later finds out is engaged to another man. Guido, working temporarily as a waiter at a local fancy restaurant, eventually wins her over with his charm, greeting her often in what can be translated as something like “good morning, princess”. (Oh, did I mention this film is all in Italian? If that makes you not want to see it, that’s really lame.) And to make a long story short, because of his charm, his humor, and ultimately his love, Guido wins Dora’s heart, and the two of them are married. They eventually have a son, Giosué (Giorgio Cantarini), and when Guido’s bookstore is finally opened, the father and son work together.

     But this is 1930’s Italy, and it isn’t long before the war—and the Nazis—get to Guido and his family. Even before Guido and Dora are wed, teachers at Dora’s school are trying to drill the superiority of the Aryan race into the heads of the children. And then one day, the Nazis come to Guido’s house and take away Guido and Giosué on a train to a concentration camp. Dora demands that she go with them, and she too is put on the train, but for the rest of their time in the camp, the family is separated.

     And now Guido is faced with the biggest challenge of his life: as he and his son are moving into this concentration camp—on his son’s birthday, no less—Guido must find a way to protect Giosué from what is really happening there. And Guido starts making up a story: the whole camp is part of a big game. All the prisoners—or contestants—have to do work to earn points. And whoever has the most points at the end of the game—whenever that is—wins a tank. This may sound ridiculous on paper, but Guido is so convincing that Giosué believes him and, no pun intended, plays along.

     Because of Guido’s story, every aspect of the concentration camp is changed in Giosué’s eyes. The train there was just the crowded train to go on to participate in the game. His childlike stubbornness leads him to refuse to go take a shower like the rest of the children in the camp. And the entire time, he keeps thinking about the tank and how much fun it would be to ride. And to make a long story short, after Guido and Giosué try to escape to see Dora while the Americans start invading the camp, Giosué hides somewhere while Guido, going to find Dora, is taken by Nazis and shot.

     But the next morning, Giosué comes out of hiding to find himself at the camp alone. He walks out into the open, and what does he find? An American tank, with a soldier inside that takes him back to Dora. And as the two embrace for the first time in probably months, the adult voice of Giosué is heard narrating:

GIOSUÉ: This is my story. This is the sacrifice my father made. This was his gift to me.

     The first time I saw this movie, I was a little uneasy. I wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that this movie was treating the whole Jewish concentration camp premise so lightly. Sure, it was emotional at times, but Guido turning the whole thing into a game felt a little wrong to me. It also made me feel like because of the story his father was telling him, Giosué was becoming ignorant of the whole situation, thinking the whole thing is just a game when in reality this is probably the worst time of their lives.

     But eventually, I realized: Guido was simply protecting his son from the evil around him. Sure, he was making things up, but it was doing it to protect his son and his innocence. And in the beginning of time, this is what God wanted for us. In Genesis 2, God, having created the world and Adam and Eve, told them that they could eat from any tree in the Garden of Eden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: “For when you eat of it you will surely die.” (2:17) But in the next chapter, Adam and Eve are tempted by Satan to eat the fruit, because they will “be like God, knowing good and evil.” (3:5) And when they eat it, that’s what happens: their innocence is destroyed, and they clothe themselves and hide from God in shame.

     Because Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God knew that they could not eat from the tree of life and live forever, so He banished them from the Garden of Eden, and that created the sinful world that we live in today. Now, think about it: if Guido hadn’t protected Giosué with that story about the game and the tank, how would Giosué have responded to the fact that his family was being taken to a concentration camp where they might work and starve until they die? I know one thing: he probably wouldn’t have had the innocent, childlike, and uplifting response when he found his mother again after the war was over. Because Guido protected him from that evil, Giosué remained innocent.

     My prayer for you is that you would allow God to lead you away from sin, that you would be clothed in His righteousness and not lose your innocence to the sin of this world.

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