Set in Arezzo, Italy, in the year 1939, the story centers on the life of a cross-cultural family: a Jewish bookstore owner named Guido Orefice, his German wife Dora and their son Joshua, focusing on their experiences before Nazi invasion, following them into a concentration camp and seeing where they are after the arrival of Allied troops. The whole movie is in Italian - but, before you whip out your translation handbooks - it comes with English subtitles.
Director Benigni has handled the plot with such mastery that the result seems like an effortless piecing together of a child's puzzle. To be able to treat as serious, harsh and brutal a period in history as the trials faced by Jews in Nazi camps with a lightness of touch that makes the plot fluffy without detracting from its poignancy or pain, puts a spotlight on the proficiency of the director.
Memorable performances by the expressive Benigni and innocent Joshua has the audience rooting for them all the way to the end. Energetic, spirited, quick-thinking Guido and stubborn, wide-eyed, gullible yet sharp Joshua breathe life into a story that is grave and touching.
The story does move on a rarefied plane, however. It seems a little removed from the life of Jews in camps as is stated in history books. These alterations have been made so as to accommodate the humour and the lines of talkative Guido, but so subtly are they incorporated and so intelligent is the handling of the narrative that they cease to matter.
Watch out for the scene where Guido translates the instructions of a German officer - it's witty and brilliantly acted out.
This movie, a winner of the 1998 Best Foreign-Language Film Award at the Oscar's, is a must watch for its freshness of perspective, its profundity and its successful juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory elements like happiness and sorrow or reality and fantasy.This article was first published on 25 Oct 2000.