Is Life is Beautiful principally a comedy or a tragedy?
Answer: Life is Beautiful is set against the tragic backdrop of the Holocaust, but tragedy is not its primary focus. The film has many comedic elements, from Benigni's antics to the myriad humorous interactions. At the end, Guido overcomes the adversity of the concentration camp to save his son--arguably the happiest possible ending for a film about the Holocaust.
Examine Benigni's unique acting style. How does his technique contribute to the film's impact?
Answer: The challenge of the film is making the comedy ring true in spite of the grim circumstances of the Holocaust. Benigni is a notably physical comedian with seemingly limitless stores of energy. Benigni's physical comedy transcends the complicated and sensitive issue of the Holocaust (for example, a man showing off his belly button is a universally humorous image that can counter even the most heady political or ethical arguments). His energy, quite evident in the first half of the film, is also a noticeable counterpoint to the resigned and fatalistic attitudes of the other prisoners in the film.
Many critics have noted that the film feels like two distinct pieces: the first, a lighthearted comedy, and the second, a dark tragedy with comedic elements. Why do you think that Benigni divided the film so sharply into two halves? What effect does this have?
Answer: Since the film is primarily a comedy, the first half does not deal so heavily with the Holocaust, thereby allowing the film's more lighthearted and magical moments to take center stage. The viewer remembers this portion of the film throughout the second half and is thus reminded that, even though the stakes have been raised, the characters generally are normal, happy people who have been forced into a difficult situation.
Discuss the unique aspects of Guido's and Dora's courtship and marriage. Why does this partnership between two seemingly opposite individuals work so well?
Guido desires to make the mundane into the extraordinary, and Dora longs to find something greater in life. In Dora, Guido finds a willing audience, and in Guido, Dora finds someone who thinks she is unlike anyone else. They both would do anything for one another, and they go to great lengths to preserve their romance (i.e., Guido rides in on a horse to rescue Dora at her engagement party, and Dora gets on the train to the concentration camp to be with her husband and son).
The first half of the film is peppered with references to the horrible events to come. Describe several of these and analyze Guido's attitude towards them. Are there clues that speak to how he will eventually handle being put into a concentration camp?
Answer: There are numerous examples of foreshadowing, but Guido's reaction to all of them is fairly consistent. For instance, when he is posing as the inspector of the school and is asked to give a talk about the superiority of the Aryan race, he turns the potentially frightening situation into an opportunity to create an entertaining show and undermine the implications of such a speech by undressing and parading around, much to the delight of the children. When his Uncle Eliseo's horse is painted green and marked as a "Jewish horse," he does not react to the hostility of the gesture but rather dismisses it as a meaningful omen and ends up riding the horse through the dinner party, transforming an emblem of cowardice and hate into a symbol of love and heroism. Later, in the concentration camp, nearly every time he is confronted with hatred, he tries to convert it into something funny or entertaining for his son's sake.
Over the course of the film, Dora goes through an extraordinary transformation. Describe this transformation, paying close attention to the early scenes with Amico and the later scenes in the concentration camp. What inspires her to change? How is this transformation evidenced?
Answer: Dora is disappointed by her life even though she is engaged to a wealthy man and wants for nothing. She does not have love, so she is unhappy. She feels trapped as though others are making her decisions for her. She finds in Guido, and later in Giosue, the love she lacks at the beginning of the film. Even when she has to cope with the most difficult experience of her life (the Holocaust), she displays determination and bravery. She takes control of her own life and decides to follow her heart at any cost, even if that means following the people she loves to a death camp.
Guido may be doing his son no favor by lying to him about the truth of their situation. Do you think that Guido was right in telling his son that the Holocaust events were a "game"? Analyze Guido's parenting style and unique approach to protecting his offspring.
Answer: First and foremost, Guido aims to protect his son. Telling him that the activities in the concentration camp are a game enables Giosue to survive and cope with a situation that he is too young to understand (one could argue that no one can understand such cruelty). He also teaches Giosue a lesson about finding a way to look at even the worst situations and make the best of them.
What is the significance of riddles in the film?
Answer: Riddles bring Guido and Doctor Lessing together on a common ground; they show that even people with dissimilar political beliefs can agree on some things. Riddles also are as a form of escapism; focusing on them allows each man to take his mind off of the traumatic events around him. Riddles also demonstrate Guido's desire to find solutions to difficult problems. Riddles also serve the plot when Doctor Lessing is reminded of a riddle by Guido but only asks about a riddle in return.
When Ferruccio describes the "Schopenhauer Method" to Guido, Guido is immediately fascinated by it, and he uses the technique numerous times throughout the film. Why is Guido so entranced by this concept? Does it work?
Answer: Guido loves being able to control his surroundings. The idea that one can make something happen through sheer force of will is thus highly appealing to him. The film does not confirm or deny the usefulness of the method, but it leaves open the possibility that love is such a strong force that it can help one defy the laws of the natural world and make extraordinary things happen.
Are Guido's efforts to bring levity in the camp limited solely to his son, or does he help the other men in the camp as well? Analyze the attitude that the other men (such as Vittorio and Bartolomeo) have towards Guido; are they indifferent towards him, irritated by him, or buoyed by his efforts?
Answer: Guido's unwavering commitment to keep up his son's spirits is inspiring to the other men. No one calls his bluff or labels him a liar. When he asks Bartolomeo to corroborate what he is telling Giosue, Bartolomeo complies (albeit with a slightly sardonic expression on his face). Guido has an inspiring effect on the other prisoners, even though (or perhaps because) his focus is mainly on his son.
It is never easy to contemplate the end-of-life, whether its own our experience or that of a loved one.
This has made a recent swath of beautiful essays a surprise. In different publications over the past few weeks, I've stumbled upon writers who were contemplating final days. These are, no doubt, hard stories to read. I had to take breaks as I read about Paul Kalanithi's experience facing metastatic lung cancer while parenting a toddler, and was devastated as I followed Liz Lopatto's contemplations on how to give her ailing cat the best death possible. But I also learned so much from reading these essays, too, about what it means to have a good death versus a difficult endfrom those forced to grapple with the issue. These are four stories that have stood out to me recently, alongside one essay from a few years ago that sticks with me today.
My Own Life | Oliver Sacks
As recently as last month, popular author and neurologist Oliver Sacks was in great health, even swimming a mile every day. Then, everything changed: the 81-year-old was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. In a beautiful op-ed, published in late February in the New York Times, he describes his state of mind and how he'll face his final moments. What I liked about this essay is how Sacks describes how his world view shifts as he sees his time on earth getting shorter, and how he thinks about the value of his time.
Before I go | Paul Kalanithi
Kalanthi began noticing symptoms — "weight loss, fevers, night sweats, unremitting back pain, cough" — during his sixth year of residency as a neurologist at Stanford. A CT scan revealed metastatic lung cancer. Kalanthi writes about his daughter, Cady and how he "probably won't live long enough for her to have a memory of me." Much of his essay focuses on an interesting discussion of time, how it's become a double-edged sword. Each day, he sees his daughter grow older, a joy. But every day is also one that brings him closer to his likely death from cancer.
As I lay dying | Laurie Becklund
Becklund's essay was published posthumonously after her death on February 8 of this year. One of the unique issues she grapples with is how to discuss her terminal diagnosis with others and the challenge of not becoming defined by a disease. "Who would ever sign another book contract with a dying woman?" she writes. "Or remember Laurie Becklund, valedictorian, Fulbright scholar, former Times staff writer who exposed the Salvadoran death squads and helped The Times win a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 1992 L.A. riots? More important, and more honest, who would ever again look at me just as Laurie?"
Everything I know about a good death I learned from my cat | Liz Lopatto
Dorothy Parker was Lopatto's cat, a stray adopted from a local vet. And Dorothy Parker, known mostly as Dottie, died peacefullywhen she passed away earlier this month. Lopatto's essay is, in part, about what she learned about end-of-life care for humans from her cat. But perhaps more than that, it's also about the limitations of how much her experience caring for a pet can transfer to caring for another person.
Yes, Lopatto's essay is about a cat rather than a human being. No, it does not make it any easier to read. She describes in searing detail about the experience of caring for another being at the end of life. "Dottie used to weigh almost 20 pounds; she now weighs six," Lopatto writes. "My vet is right about Dottie being close to death, that it’s probably a matter of weeks rather than months."
Letting Go | Atul Gawande
"Letting Go" is a beautiful, difficult true story of death. You know from the very first sentence — "Sara Thomas Monopoli was pregnant with her first child when her doctors learned that she was going to die" — that it is going to be tragic. This story has long been one of my favorite pieces of health care journalism because it grapples so starkly with the difficult realities of end-of-life care.
In the story, Monopoli is diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, a surprise for a non-smoking young woman. It's a devastating death sentence: doctors know that lung cancer that advanced is terminal. Gawande knew this too — Monpoli was his patient. But actually discussing this fact with a young patient with a newborn baby seemed impossible.
"Having any sort of discussion where you begin to say, 'look you probably only have a few months to live. How do we make the best of that time without giving up on the options that you have?' That was a conversation I wasn't ready to have," Gawande recounts of the case in a new Frontline documentary.
What's tragic about Monopoli's case was, of course, her death at an early age, in her 30s. But the tragedy that Gawande hones in on — the type of tragedy we talk about much less — is how terribly Monopoli's last days played out.