Life Is Beautiful
Rating -

Drama (Italy); 1998; Rated PG-13; 114 Minutes

Roberto Benigni: Guido Orefice
Nicoletta Braschi: Dora
Guistino Purano: Uncle
Sergio Bini Bustric: Ferruccio Orefice
Horst Buchholz: Dr. Lessing

Produced by Cianluigi Braschi, Mario Cotone, and Elda Ferri; Directed by Roberto Benigni; Screenwritten by Vincenzo Cerami and Roberto Benigni

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Written by DAVID KEYES

Roberto Benigni captured the hearts of millions last year following a big win with "Life Is Beautiful" at the Cannes Film Festival, and when he won an Oscar for his portrayal of the movie's Jewish father, it catapulted him into a spotlight that has since then remained bright and focused. Maybe that's because he revolutionized the way moviegoers tend to think about foreign films--behind a language most of us cannot comprehend, there was a movie in which the message was perfectly clear, that even when times are at their worst, you can push yourself into a spectrum of hope by holding onto dreams and aspirations.

Those hopes could also affect the future of your loved ones. In the story, Benigni played a Jewish man named Guido, who fell victim to the Holocaust, and had a son by his side and a wife on the other lines. To protect their innocence (most notably his son's), he sacrificed all of his fears and held onto the dream for brighter days, shining rays of hope onto the eyes of his confused child. To demolish his son's alert fears, he turned the Holocaust into a game, in which the Jewish were competing for a prize tank, and the sharp orders barked by German swine were actually 'rules' for competition. Coincidences, wisdom, and a heart of gold rushed through our hearts at maximum velocity, and in the wake of harsh criticisms and magnificent praises from international and American critics, the film was nominated for Best Picture at the 71st Annual Academy Awards.

It did not win the prestigious picture award, but managed to walk away with other Oscars, including one for Best Foreign Film and another for Best Actor. Although it has been almost half a year since its recognition, the movie remains popular in America as it does overseas. Miramax, however, has somehow arrived at the notion that viewers would appreciate translated language over subtitles, and has released a newly-dubbed version of the almost-immediate classic to North American theaters recently. Like all those others, alas, this dub fails in some of the most expected ways; a language that means so much to the characters in the movie is suddenly changed to satisfy the needs of the viewer, not to best suit the movie's artistic merit. Words mislay their meaning, character effort is lost behind translations, and the tale as a whole is seemingly blanched. By dubbing the movie, Benigni, his cast, and Miramax, apparently think that we're all illiterate, and cannot understand a foreign movie unless the language is spoken in English, when it was never meant to be.

Such harsh words might not have been so harsh, if Benigni's film did not depend on a precise location and dialect. Some dubs actually work; there is, for instance, Werner Herzog's "Nosferatu The Vampyre", which was filmed in German, but told a story without specific place and time. Although the German version is favorable, the English is not without strong quality, either. This is because both versions focus emphasis on things other than dialogue, and the sense of horrific dread builds regardless of what language the characters speak. But Benigni's film cannot attain that kind of success in dub form, because Italy is his location, Italian is his language. Changing the dialogue to English is a miscalculation, not to mention unneeded.

Don't get me wrong, though; "Life Is Beautiful" is an achievement just as gorgeous as its title. I, after all, ranked it #11 on last year's best list, and gave it three-and-a-half stars. My suggestion is to wait for the VHS or DVD release of the movie in its preferred format--Italian with English subtitles. Seeing it in theaters is a mystifying experience, but seeing it spoken in a language significantly unfamiliar to its characters is not a pretty sight.

Special Note: This film was first reviewed in January in accordance to the original Italian version. For a critique based solely on the movie's original qualities, please click here.

1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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