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Life is Beautiful

Life is Beautiful, the 1997 concentration camp tragicomedy directed by, co-written, and starring Italian film comedian Roberto Benigni, garnered worldwide critical and popular acclaim, record-setting profits, and several prestigious awards, including three Academy Awards and the Cannes film festival’s Grand Prix.  Despite this recognition, a sizable assemblage of dissenters began expressing disapproval and even disgust with Benigni’s choice of setting and subject matter as the film began to see release outside of Italy.

Life is BeautifulAlthough the specifics of the complaints these doubters raised varied slightly, the overarching accusation was that the levity with which Benigni’s Guido greeted his confinement in a Nazi concentration camp was somehow disrespectful to the survivors of the real-life Holocaust. For these skeptics, Benigni’s decision to portray humor as the coping strategy used by Guido precluded his ability to treat the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust with the reverence and gravity it clearly deserves. In this view, humor and frivolity are immutably inconsistent with the abomination of Nazi concentration camps.

A corollary of this primary complaint was the frequently expressed critique that the portrait Benigni painted of day-to-day concentration camp life was irresponsibly sanitized.  Since Schindler’s List, filmmakers who tackle the daunting subject matter of the Holocaust seem to be expected to graphically portray the gristly minutiae of concentration camp life in order to successfully achieve a similar documentary-like level of authenticity.

The possibility that both of these critiques overlook or oversimplify is that more than attempting to make a statement specifically about the Holocaust, Benigni used Life is Beautiful to investigate the manifold potential reactions people can choose to exhibit in the face of crisis or duress or flux.

In this paper, I will discuss Benigni’s Life is Beautiful and examine the philosophical implications of Guido’s choice of actions while confined in the concentration camp. Specifically, I will discuss the ways in which the theories William Barrett presents in his seminal analysis of Existentialism, Irrational Man, are manifested in the film. In order to do this, I will first present an outline of the story line, setting, and characters in Life is Beautiful. Next, I will relate the major themes in the movie to the tenets of the philosophical movement of Existentialism as expressed in William Barrett’s 1958 study, Irrational Man.  Finally, I will assess the impact this film and the existentialist themes contained therein had on my personal worldview.

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