Tuesday, May 11, 2004

La Vita E Bella ! Yes, life is so beautiful !! Roberto Benigni and his antics...sweet as nectar...What a classic movie? and how did i miss watching it, all these years ! I vividly remember the Oscar Night, when on hearing his name as the Academy Award winner for best actor, the bald Italian, walked over the seats of the front row audience....he was at his usual self :) and sprang on to the stage to grasp the coveted Oscar. I remember him uttering some emotional Italian Gibberish, sounding very melodramatic...and the audience gushing all over him. Surprisingly all that didnt force me to grab a copy of the movie or visit the theatre. It also played on Star Movies on a few occasions, and i managed to miss it each time. Finally, thanks to Ruchir, who rented the VCD day before, I could savour this classic rendition.

Some people become clowns; others have clownhood thrust upon them. It is impossible to regard Roberto Benigni without imagining him as a boy in school, using humor to deflect criticism and confuse his enemies. Watching his adventures reminded me of Chaplin.

The film falls into two parts. One is pure comedy. The other smiles through tears. Benigni, who also directed and co-wrote the movie, stars as Guido, a hotel waiter in Italy in the 1930s. He arrives in town in a runaway car with failed brakes and is mistaken for a visiting dignitary. He falls in love instantly with the beautiful Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's real-life wife). The passion between them is magical. The kiss that Dora offers under the dinner table was electrifying.

He becomes the undeclared rival of her fiance, the Fascist town clerk. He makes friends with the German doctor who is a regular guest at the hotel and shares his love of riddles. And by the fantastic manipulation of carefully planned coincidences, he makes it appear that he is fated to replace the dour Fascist in Dora's life. All of this early material, the first long act of the movie, is comedy much of it silent involving the fate of a much-traveled hat. Only well into the movie did I learn the crucial information that Guido is Jewish. And being jewish in those times, spelt doom !

'Take me away' says Dora under the table and after the magical kiss. So does Roberto. They marry and Guido and Dora dote on their 5-year-old son Joshua.In 1945, near the end of the war, the Jews in the town are rounded up by the Fascists and shipped by rail to a death camp. Guido and Joshua are loaded into a train, and Guido instinctively tries to turn it into a game to comfort his son. He makes a big show of being terrified that somehow they will miss the train and be left behind. Dora, not Jewish, would be spared by the Fascists, but insists on coming along to be with her husband and child. In the camp, Guido constructs an elaborate fiction to comfort and protect his son. It is all an elaborate game, he explains. The first one to get 1,000 points will win a tank--not a toy tank but a real one, which Joshua can drive all over town. Guido acts as the translator for a German who is barking orders at the inmates, freely translating them into Italian designed to quiet his son's fears. Joshua falls for this make-belive frenzy that his father concocts with such amazing ease and elan.And he literally hides the child from the camp guards, with rules of the game that have the boy crouching on a high sleeping platform and remaining absolutely still.

There are no horrific scenes, no gruesome violence, no soap opera angst, and yet, Life is Beautiful manages to convey so much emotion that is completely real. I havent been able to shrug off the sweet images of the child listening to his liar father with rapt attention. Nor the scene where his father is taken to the corner and shot dead just a day before they are set free...nor the joy on the child's face when he sees a real Army Tank heading towards him. His father had made sure that his son wins this make-believe game before succumbing to the realities of the time!Without tugging at the heart-strings or working the violins into a frenzy, Life is Beautiful manages to resonate with humanity in a way Hindi movies havent been able to do ever, atleast for ME. I intend to buy a copy first thing I visit Planet M !!


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