24. Roberto Benigni — Life Is Beautiful (1998)
Tackling history’s darkest moments have been mined extensively to create award-caliber films. The unspeakable crimes of the Holocaust are a frequent backdrop to highlight the worst and best of humanity. Roberto Benigni’s performance, though charming, does less to show hope shining through darkness, but more to inappropriately elicit laughter. Oscar night that year showered praise and awards on the Italian film, but many have called its true impact into question. When tragedy on that scale is treated with humor, does it help us heal or does it misrepresent the suffering that millions were subjected to?
Malice was surely never intended in Benigni’s portrayal of a father trying to bring joy to his imprisoned family, but awareness of context and the overall presentation is a core tenet of filmmaking as a whole. Director Terry Gilliam once criticized Schindler’s List for treating the subject of the Holocaust with too much optimism — that is a debate for another time, but a comment that can be easily applied to Benigni’s Guido Orefice.
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