Marissa Hank ‘20 Contributing Writer
The year is 1939 in the Kingdom of Italy. Guido Orefice, (played by Roberto Benigi), recently arrived in the city to work with his uncle in a restaurant. Upon arrival, Guido falls in love with Dora (played by Nicoletta Braschi), a woman who is engaged to a rich but arrogant local government official. Guido’s comical yet sharp characteristics allow him to set up many “coincidental” run-ins to show his interest in her. After crashing her engagement party and humiliating Dora’s mother and fiancé, Guido wins over Dora with his charisma. Soon they are married and have a son named Giosuè (played by Giorgio Cantarini).
When the effects of World War II reach their city, their peaceful lives are shattered. On Giosuè’s birthday, Guido, his uncle and Giosuè are seized by Nazi soldiers. Along with other Jews, they are forced onto a train taking them to a concentration camp. Once Dora discovers the tragic news, she immediately rushes to the train station and courageously forces the guards to allow her on the train with her family.
However, men and women are forced into separate parts of the camp. Therefore, during their internment, Guido and Dora never see one another. Nevertheless, Guido ensures that Dora knows he and Giosuè are safe by sending either symbolic or literal messages to Dora via the camp’s loudspeaker. Even in horrific living conditions, their love transcends the tragedies forced upon them by the Nazi regime.
While in the camp, Guido manipulates the truth of their situation in order to protect his son. Guido explains to Giosuè that the camp is a complicated game in which he must perform the tasks Guido gives him. Each of the tasks will earn them points and whoever gets to 1,000 points first will win a real tank. His father tells him that if he cries, complains that he wants his mother or says that he is hungry, he will lose points, while quiet boys, who hide from the camp guards, earn extra points. At times, Giosuè is reluctant to believe that the camp is an elaborate game, but Guido always convinces him to continue believing. Guido, without faltering, maintains this approach until the end. In the chaos of shutting down the camp as the Allied Forces draw near, Guido tells his son to stay in a box until everybody has left. Guido persuades Giosuè to stay hidden by informing him that they have reached 1,000 points, but staying hidden overnight is the final task that will ensure their victory—thus, they have a chance to win the tank.
Upon the film’s release, critic Tom Dawson argued, “Benigni’s sentimental fantasy diminishes the suffering of Holocaust victims.” However, in my opinion, this critique leaves an unfair presumption that the suffering of Holocaust survivors was glazed over in this film, and that is false. The poignancy of this film lies within the moments where the audience sympathizes with the agonies, hard labor and pain these people are faced with. What makes this film stand out among others of its kind is the idea of protection and love.
Guido was aware that his young son wouldn’t understand the harsh realities of the Nazi regime and wouldn’t be able to comprehend how he could be hated for being Jewish. Guido understood that if his son knew the truth he would not only be more unhappy and complain, but his life would be put at risk. By turning these dark circumstances into a game, Guido knew that he could protect his child’s life. Guido wanted his son to leave this horrific experience with his heart beating and his outlook on life optimistic. The greatest gift Guido could give Giosuè is the knowledge that life is beautiful, even in the face of oppression.
In the current global political climate, as darkness hangs over the thoughts of many, this film stands as a testament that the power of love carries hope that humanity will prevail.