A Jewish man has a wonderful romance with the help of his humour, but must use that same quality to protect his son in a Nazi death camp.
It's understandable that Life Is Beautiful has attracted its fair share of controversy, publicity and opposition. After all, the nightmare of a Nazi concentration camp is hardly the stuff of high comedy. So it's all credit to Benigni that not only has he found some laughs but has crafted a genuinely remarkable film as powerful, moving, and capable of indelibly etching itself on the brain as Schindler's List.
The unnamed camp doesn't appear until the second half, leaving the first hour free to showcase the amazing physical comedy which has made Benigni a household name in his Italian homeland. Here, as Jewish waiter Guido, he divides his time between getting into scrapes with Fascists (as evinced in the dazzling opening sequence) and making fanciful attempts to woo teacher Dora (Braschi, Benigni's real-life missus).
Fast forward a few years and the couple, now married with a young son (Cantarini), are carted off to camp where, to shield the appalling reality from his child, Guido explains their new circumstances by saying they have joined a game to win a giant army tank.
It's all too easy to assume that Benigni has made a mockery of one of history's biggest tragedies. Yet Life Is Beautiful transcends such a quibble with its sheer inventiveness and energy, its emphasis placed firmly on the beautifully staged romance between Guido and Dora. Far from a heavy political tract, this is a bittersweet love story set against a turbulent backdrop, where true horrors are merely hinted at, as if trying to maintain the viewer's innocence as much as that of the impossibly cute child.
Ultimately it's Benigni's show; a kind of manic cross between Woody Allen and Jim Carrey, he creates the kind of tragi-comic hero you can't help but end up rooting for.