Freeze Frame #81: Life is Beautiful

I wasn’t very pleased when Roberto Benigni won Best Actor at the Academy Awards, danced on chairs and expressed a fervent desire to make love to everyone in the auditorium. I felt Tom Hanks deserved the statuette that year, for his portrayal of Capt. John Miller in Saving Private Ryan.

Having said that, I did think that Benigni did an amazing job in this simple yet powerful tale of a man who fights the Nazis for the sake of his kid, but uses humor to do it. One criticism I have heard leveled against it is that it trivialized the scope of the tragedy. I don’t think something like the Holocaust can be trivialized, nor was it the movie’s intent.

Benigni’s performance is quite interesting, in that its impact is mostly created by its contrast to its environment. He does more or less the same thing throughout the movie – play a cheerful character who finds a way to laugh at most forms of adversity. The situation around him goes from relatively benign danger to deadly horror, but he acts the same way. Up to a point, it is his disposition. Beyond that, it is his mask, worn for the sake of his son.

The scene that really stood out for me is the one where the mask visibly cracks. He encounters a senior Nazi doctor whom he has struck a rapport with before his incarceration. Their camaraderie was based on a shared love for riddles. Upon seeing him in the concentration camp, he feels that his camaraderie with the doctor might be his ticket out of there. It is a belief that is reinforced when the doctor calls him aside, presumably to give him some valuable information. Instead, the doctor asks him for the solution to a riddle that has puzzled him for a while. The look on his face speaks volumes. For a moment, he cannot comprehend how the good doctor could refuse to comprehend. Then despair settles in.

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5 thoughts on “Freeze Frame #81: Life is Beautiful

  1. Ramsu,
    Agree. Bengini’s performance, when the Nazi doctor pulls him aside only to ask him about a riddle, is very good.

    For me there are 2 lump in the throat scenes – they move me every time I watch the movie. One where Bengini marches off to his death with a wink and the other at the end when the kid finds his mom and his voice over speaks about “his father’s gift”..

    I didn’t find anything in the movie that trivialized Holocaust tragedy.

  2. I agree on the Tom Hanks part. From a pure acting perspective, Hanks’ role was far more challenging, while Benigni’s was made to be popular. I mean, one just cant mess up a role like that unless one is Salman Khan.

    The doctor-riddle scene was awesome.

    I felt that this movie expressed the horrors of the holocaust far better than a serious movie like the Pianist. I think its the contrast that Benigni manages to highlight with his goofy behaviour under ridiculously horrible conditions that showcase the extent of the horror the nazis perpetrated.

  3. I remember a scene from Schindler’s List where Helen Hirsch (I think) talks about how she is puzzled by the randomness of it all – she doesn’t know if there is anything she can or should do, or avoid doing, in order to live. The Pianist is, in some ways, an example of the same concept.

  4. Rajendran says:

    Both the films deal with the woes of holocaust but the style, manner and even the story narrated is quite different. I mean – The Pianist and Life is Beautiful. In your “freeze frame” language – much like the doctor-riddle scene, one scene from The Pianist just stood out for me.

    When Adrian Brody took refuge in his German friend’s apartment, he is left alone with a piano in the room. He was instructed to maintain silence in the room. He opens the piano and actions playing the piano;

    The background score in that scene was fabulous the tussle between his passion and need to live, I thought, was brought out brilliantly.

    And yes – a completely different scene in the same film; the “idiot” scene as I would like to call it worked excellently for me.

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