Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Disney, widescreen 1.85:1, languages: English dubbed DD 5.1 [CC], Italian DD 5.1, subtitles: English, single side-dual layer, 27 chapters, rated PG-13, 117 min., $39.99, street date 11/9/99.
Academy Awards: Winner of Best Actor-Roberto Benigni, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Original Dramatic Score. Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing, 1999.
Directed by Roberto Benigni. Starring Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini, Giustino Durano.
Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful (La Vita E Bella) is a daring departure for one of the world's most acclaimed comic filmmakers. The film is a Chaplinesque fable about the power of imagination set against the stark reality of World War II Europe. Life is Beautiful combines satire, physical comedy, social commentary and a touch of the surreal into a uniquely moving story of love.
At the center of the fable is Guido (Roberto Benigni) - an enchanting individual with childlike innocence and grand dreams of owning his own bookshop. It's 1939 and he has come to the Tuscan town of Arezzo with his poet friend Ferruccio (Sergio Bustric). With unabashed humor and joy, the two seek fortune and romance, ignoring the growing anti-Semitism and Fascist government that surrounds them.
Guido falls in love with Dora, a beautiful young school teacher (Nicoletta Braschi). Unfortunately, the woman he calls his "Princess" is already engaged. Worse, she is engaged to the local Fascist official with whom he has had a run-in. Guido, however, is not deterred and a fairy tale romance ensues.
Several years later -- Guido and Dora are married and have a son, Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini), and Guido has finally opened the bookshop of his dreams. But now, the occasional bigotries Guido once ignored have become Racial Laws with which he must come to terms. Throughout it all, Guido determines to shield his son from the brutal reality governing their lives. This determination becomes a matter of life and death when Guido and his son are sent to a concentration camp three months before the war's end. Of her own accord, and out of her love for them, Dora deports herself on the same train.
Now, in this unimaginable world, Guido must use his bold imagination and every ounce of his indefatigable spirit to save those he loves.
During the six weeks or so between the announcement of the nominations and the actual ceremony, I usually try to take in whatever Academy Award Best Picture nominees that I'd missed along the way. I've always enjoyed the awards presentation, and although these final few screenings don't usually change my opinion about what I think should win, they make the ceremony more enjoyable for me.
Despite that consistent desire, I usually don't make it to all five just because at least one or two of the nominated films absolutely disinterest me. Actually, I've only taken in the full crop three times in this decade: 1990, 1991, and 1994. Every other year, I've missed at least one or two of the pictures.
For the crop of 1998, I managed to screen all of the five nominated films except one: Life Is Beautiful. I just couldn't do it - it had too many strikes against it. It looked sentimental and cloying, and I simply can't stand Roberto Benigni. I can't pin down exactly when this obnoxious moron first came to my attention - probably in the early Nineties when he made Johnny Stecchino - but I took an instant dislike to his inane antics and nothing I saw about LIB made it seem likely that I'd change my mind anytime soon.
Tonight I finally saw the movie. This didn't occur because I had any radical change of heart - indeed, I could have happily lived the rest of my life without watching Life Is Beautiful. No, I screened the movie only because the folks at Disney (of which Miramax is a part) sent us a copy of the "Collector's Series" DVD.
Now that I've actually seen the film, I must acknowledge that it wasn't as bad as I expected. However, I didn't think it was very good, either. Every once in a while I do a complete 180 on a movie. Good Will Hunting is another Oscar nominee that I'd skipped during its theatrical run; when I saw the DVD, though, I realized that I'd been completely wrong in my impressions of that fine film.
With LIB, I was pretty much right on the mark. The actual film was very close to what I expected it to be. Benigni wasn't quite as obnoxious as I thought he would be, but he was still pretty clownish and annoying. Why he won a Best Actor Oscar is an absolute mystery to me. Yes, he does physical comedy pretty well, but he displays very little emotional range; he always seems pretty much the same.
Ultimately, my main complaint with LIB is that the film seems pointless. I don't mind more movies about the Holocaust, but they should have something new to say, which this one doesn't. It's the first time in a while a movie has tried to personalize the experience in this way - LIB doesn't attempt the grand statement of a picture like Schindler's List - but the movie's such a slight contraption that it didn't involve me.
The best film of this sort was easily Sophie's Choice, and in many ways, LIB echoes that far superior movie. That picture did an excellent job of conveying the tragedy and the terror of the Holocaust; I still think the scene in which Sophie has to make her choice is one of the most crushing I've ever seen.
Nothing in LIB even remotely approaches that level of emotion. At the risk of sounding glib, this movie's closest predecessor is Hogan's Heroes. While LIB is actually more serious than that show, it nonetheless seems rather light and rarely imports any of the seriousness or tragedy of the situation. No, not every Holocaust film has to be consistently dark and horrific - Sophie's Choice offers a nice balance - but LIB offers almost no glimpse of the threat and the fear. It all seems somewhat dreary, but that's about it.
The Holocaust scenes actually only account for the second half of LIB. The first segment shows Benigni wooing his hoped-for mate. Much wackiness ensues, including a wide variety of gags that involve hats. If you like Benigni's style of humor, I'm sure you'll be happy here. As for me, he leaves me cold, so there wasn't much of interest.
Ultimately, Life Is Beautiful is a fairly watchable little film but nothing more than that. It's not bad, but it in no way deserved all of the accolades it received.
There's not much danger of the DVD release of LIB winning any awards. Actually, that's not true - I've seen a number of newsgroup denizens choose it as the worst DVD of 1999. I think their appraisals are extreme, but they aren't too far off the mark.
Really, Miramax's "Collector's Edition" DVD of LIB possesses only one major fault, but it's crippling. I'll address that issue later. First, the basics: Life Is Beautiful is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; as is typical for Disney titles, the film has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions.
The DVD provides an inconsistent but generally strong image. Sharpness usually appears quite good without any obvious edge enhancement; I didn't notice any examples of shimmering or jagged lines. However, some odd softness occasionally creeps into the picture, but with no consistency. Check out the opera scene for an example: some shots of the performers seem vague and fuzzy, whereas others appear sharp as a tack, even though the composition of both scenes looked exactly the same! I don't know why this happens, but it does. Happily, it's a fairly irregular occurrence.
The picture also seems clear and lacks any obvious defects such as grain, scratches, marks, or digital artifacts. A strange form of grittiness occasionally interferes with the image, but from whence it comes I don't know; its appearance seems as mysterious as the periodic softness I already mentioned. This problem is even rarer than the fuzziness, though; I only noticed it two or three times during the film.
Colors are absolutely splendid from start to finish. Actually, mostly from start to middle; when the scene transfers to the concentration camp, the hues are much more subdued and tend toward grays and browns. During the first half of the film, though, we're treated to a fine array of bright and vivid colors, and they look magnificent. Black levels also seem solid, and shadow detail looks appropriate. The picture has a few notable flaws, but overall it's very good.
I was less fond of the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix. While I don't expect a whole lot from the audio for a comedy/drama such as Life Is Beautiful, I expect more than I heard here. The sound imaging is fairly weak for such a modern release. Some definition appears in the front soundstage, with good stereo imaging for music and for some effects in the concentration camp (such as the factory in which our characters work). However, the audio tends to seem rather monaural much of the time; for example, sometimes cars pan appropriately across the front channels, but often they don't. The rear speakers are quite underused. A few ambient effects pop up back there, and some musical fill occurs, but that's about it.
The quality of the sound is generally decent but not great. Music tended to seem a bit more harsh than I'd expect; the score appeared thin and vaguely harsh, with little warmth. Dialogue and effects seemed solid and accurate, though, with appropriately natural tones. I can't say that the audio for LIB is poor, but it's pretty mediocre for a film from 1998.
One note in regard to the audio: both the original Italian and a dubbed English version appear on this DVD. Purists will likely prefer the Italian track accompanied by subtitles, but I found the English dub to be more satisfactory. I alternated between the two (unfortunately, you can't switch audio "on the fly" - I had to go to the main menu every time) and felt that LIB is too dialogue-intensive to make subtitles practical; I spent so much time reading the text that I didn't feel like I was watching an actual movie, and I couldn't absorb the cinematography to an appropriate level. The English version seems complete and is pretty well integrated. No differences between the quality of the two mixes was noted.
So many people might not hate Disney so much if they'd stop releasing overpriced DVDs like this, one of the saddest "Collector's Editions" I've seen. The key attraction here is a 23 minute documentary called "Making Life Beautiful". Anyone expecting a nice piece that details the creation of the film will be sorely disappointed, though; this feature is nothing more than an inane love letter to Benigni. All we hear in this program are laudatory remarks from actors like Walter Matthau and Michael Keaton plus others, like members of Holocaust historical groups. They spend a great deal of time telling us how great both Benigni and LIB are. We also get to watch him win awards and hear from others how great he is. Man, if I have to listen to one more person compare him to Chaplin, I'm gonna yak!
Does any of this have anything to do with the making of the film? Nope. We see a few shots from the set, but no narration relates to those; they're just featured amidst more praise. Add to that the annoyance that the first two minutes of this program just show the film's trailer - available elsewhere on the DVD, so its appearance is redundant and, since it's at the start of the documentary, vaguely annoying - and you have one of the worst "behind the scenes" pieces I've yet witnessed. I'd be even more cheesed off if I'd actually liked the film, because I'd then be interested in hearing some good information; to have that desire and then to be confronted with this monstrosity would be quite unpleasant.
The remainder of the DVD offers the aforementioned theatrical trailer and ten television ads. All of those are very similar; they're just variations on the same theme and they get old very quickly.
And that's it. That's all you get on a "Collector's Edition" DVD that lists for $39.99. What a disgrace! Initially I thought that another alleged special edition from a Disney subsidiary - Dimension's Halloween H20 - would best LIB for the honor of biggest rip-off of 1999, but I think LIB indeed deserves that prize. H20 is similarly lacking in supplements, but at least its documentary is worth watching. It's a little shorter (18 minutes versus the 21 - excluding the trailer - here) but at least I enjoyed it.
None of the supplements of LIB are worth a damn. The trailer, the TV spots, the crummy documentary - all of it is eminently avoidable. As is this DVD. If you really love Life Is Beautiful, then you're pretty much stuck - if you want to see the film presented in the best possible way, you have to pony up the dough for this insulting package. After all, it does at least offer a good image and acceptable sound.
I'm not much of one for boycotts, and I wouldn't encourage anyone to perform any kind of general strike toward Disney. However, I do think that DVD fans should draw the proverbial line in the sand and let Disney know that packages such as this will not be acceptable. For $30, I wouldn't come down on it so far, but $40 is absolutely insane for this kind of presentation. Leave Life Is Beautiful on the shelves and maybe Disney will get the message.