Life Is Beautiful (1998): Benigni’s Fable, Oscar-Nominated for Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film

In 1998, Life Is Beautiful became the second film after Z (in 1969) to be nominated for both the Best Foreign-Language and the Best Picture Oscars in the same year.

A serio comedy about the Holocaust, “Life Is Beautiful” carried with it gravity and importance. It received seven nominations, including Best Actor and Best Director, a record for a foreignlanguage film.

The story concerns an accident-prone Italian bookshop owner (Roberto Benigni), who is imprisoned with his family in a World War II concentration camp. He bravely attempts to protect his son (Giorgio Cantarini) by making a game out of their tragic predicament.

Benigni, known in the United States for his performances in Down by Law and Johnny Stecchino, came under fire when word got out that he was making a comedy about the Holocaust. Though not Jewish, the Italian director and cowriter had personal roots in the saga: his father served time in a German labor camp. Benigni recalled how “each evening my father was telling me a story, some awful and revolting tragedy things, always in a very light way. Maybe he was scared to make a trauma on me.”

Citing Benigni’s success at the European Film Awards (Best Actor) and at Cannes (where it won the Grand Jury Prize), industry experts felt that Benigni had a strong shot at a lead performance award. Harvey Weinstein remarked that, “Miramax has gotten nominations in the past for Max von Sydow in Pelle the Conqueror and Massimo Troisi for Il Postino, which for him was “a testament that the actor category has been foreignactor friendly.” But it’s the film’s popularity with audiences that is the real ace up its sleeve. Benigni’s work pushes all the right emotional buttons.”

Even before its American release, Life Is Beautiful showed the same trademarks as Il Postino. Benigni received high praise from Weinstein, who hyped the film as the next Il Postino. Ultimately, Life Is Beautiful shattered box office records for foreign films, eventually outdoing Il Postino’s commercial success by far.