Life is Beautiful (1997), written by Roberto Benigni and Vincenzo Cerami, is often credited as one of the most influential Italian movies of all time. The screenplay is ambitious in its ability to balance the horrors of the Holocaust with a father’s attempt to employ humor as a means of guiding his son through the war, safeguarding not only his physical well-being but also preserving his innocence.
- Draft Read: “Red Original”
- Type: Spec
- Page Count: 117
- Reading Speed: Medium
- Setting(s): Italy
- Plot Structure: Linear, Spanning multiple months
- Genre(s): Love, Memoir, Two acts
- Theme(s): Love, Optimism/Hope, Resiliency, War, The Holocaust
- Protagonist Change: None
Let’s start with the format. The script can be split into two parts: The first half chronicles Guido’s courting of Dora. The second, set years later, centers around Guido’s attempt to shield his son from the Holocaust by pretending that they (father and son) are involved in a game.
A quick note on formatting: I read the script in English. I do not know if it was originally written in English or Italian, but I presume the dialogue must have been Italian because not all sentences read well.
Even though this script doesn’t follow a traditional Three Act structure, one could theoretically split the story into three parts: the courting of Dora, which is pure comedy. Second, time in the camp and playing the game. The third, and climax, Guido’s ultimate death. And in that sense, the script works perfectly. Because we come to love Guido as a character. He’s fun, caring and knows how to bring calm to any situation. Of course, this makes his ultimate death that much harder to accept.
But the film is a comedy set against the backdrop of the Holocaust. And for some people, such as Mel Brooks, that’s too much:
You have to separate it. For example, Roberto Benigni’s comedy Life Is Beautiful really annoyed me. A crazy film that even attempted to find comedy in a concentration camp. It showed the barracks in which Jews were kept like cattle, and it made jokes about it. The philosophy of the film is: people can get over anything. No, they can’t. They can’t get over a concentration camp.
And there’s certainly truth there.
The plot, certainly in the first half, feels secondary to the gags. In other words, the story is secondary to the ways in which the writers can land a joke. We all know what’s going to happen early on; the man will get the woman. But the plot is all about doing so in the most entertaining ways possible.
What about the German Doctor who appears in both halves of the story? He is obsessed with riddles. During the dinner party in the concentration camp, Guido hopes the doctor will share some important news. Yet, the doctor simply turns to Guido for advice on a riddle. Is that, and his saving of Guido in the medical exam, his only role? If so, would he really necessitate such a large part.
Guido, Dora and Joshua are the family unit. Perhaps most interestingly, Guido doesn’t really change throughout the script, only progressively relying more on his ability to make light of any situation in a desperate attempt to convince his son to stay in the game. Of course, the threat of death, keeps the conflict high, especially as Joshua does not understand the full seriousness of the situation. So, Guido is juggling both saving himself, his son, and his wife. Likewise in the first half, the threat of Dora marrying the wrong man adds to the drama.
Dialogue & Pacing
Witty dialogue. Here’s a back-n-forth on Page 13:
I would like to fill out all the necessary form to open a bookstore. Will it take long?
So we better start now.
Interestingly, the second half of the script has less wit and wordplay, for obvious reasons. I’ve never read a script that has such a significant change in writing style. It wouldn’t surprise me if one of the writers primarily wrote the first half and the other the second half.
Pacing, as noted above, is difficult to analyze as the story structure is nontypical. Truthfully, the story works well, even though the first half is somewhat slow, and the second half is relatively quick. This creates an episodic view of the family’s time in the concentration camp, but one could ask; do we really need to see any more of the horrors?
A quick note on reading speed: I marked it as medium, but the script does have some long action paragraphs. It probably straddles the line of medium and slow.
War movies are inherently impactful. The final, and only voiceover, is sure to elicit strong emotions:
VOICE OVER (adult Joshua)
This is my story. This is the sacrifice my father made. The was his gift to me.
One of the most emotionally impactful lines in movie history.
Best Part of The Script
Two parts jump out.
On Page 79, Guido volunteers to translate the camp rules. Very funny and entertaining.
Page 114, Guido’s death, as he continues his charade all the way until the end. Is serious comedy a thing? Because this is its definition.