Great Character: Guido (“Life is Beautiful”)
This month’s theme: Father figures. Today’s guest post by Jason Cuthbert features Guido from the 1997 movie Life Is Beautiful, written by Vincenzo Cerami and Roberto Benigni.
“Life is Beautiful,” or “La vita è bella” in its original Italian language, is a dynamic 1998 romantic comedy drama that follows the heart-warming and heart-breaking extents that a loving father goes to shield his young innocent son from the genocidal horrors of the German Nazi occupation and the demonic onslaught known as the Holocaust. Roberto Benigni, the highly engaging Italian actor, scriptwriter, and filmmaker stars as Guido, the perpetually smiling spark of life who’s ability to always look on the bright side illuminates the lives of every person he ever comes across — especially his son Joshua.
Roberto Benigni not only played center stage in the lead actor position, but he sat comfortably in the director’s chair and shared the screenwriter’s desk with Vincenzo Cerami. Life was definitely beautiful for “Life is Beautiful” at the box office with $229,163,264, and in the award category: three Academy Awards, Grand Prize of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival, People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival, BAFTA Film Award, CFCA Award, Lumiere Award and two National Board of Review Awards as just the tip of this movie’s successful iceberg.
Life is Beautiful plot summary from IMDB:
A Jewish man has a wonderful romance with the help of his humor, but must use that same quality to protect his son in a Nazi death camp.
Guido is an Italian/Jewish father figure that treats his family like a treasured audience for him to entertain, inspire and to celebrate the world around them with. He loves stories, which we learn as he becomes a bookstore owner and through his spontaneously constructed exaggerations that repaint real life in more shiny and happy hues. Guido’s arrival into a new town may seem mundane on the outside looking in, but on the inside looking out — Guido feels like a prince relocating to his palace.
GUIDO: What kind of place is this? It’s beautiful: Pigeons fly, women fall from the sky! I’m moving here!
With enthusiasm as his paintbrush and unconditional love as his spectacular spectrum of paint, Guido can mutate anti-Semitic slurs used to weaken him into silly, goofy pranks that his young son Joshua doesn’t have to be afraid of. Although his “kill them with kindness” response to pure hatred may seem way too passive for adults who have suffered through such evil aggression, to Guido’s naive son, the sting of this unprovoked ignorance is being diluted and the safety of childhood is being preserved.
Guido continues to shelter Joshua from the evil that men do when he and his son are abducted and sent off to a concentration camp. His vast imagination continues to flourish and be challenged with harsher realities that he must struggle through to keep a level head and an unpolluted spirit about for the sake of his son’s sanity.
GUIDO: You can lose all your points for any one of three things. One: If you cry. Two: If you ask to see your mother. Three: If you’re hungry and ask for a snack! Forget it!
What makes Guido such an enduring and beautiful human being is that he refuses to let his inner frustrations and anger bubble up to the surface and sabotage his son’s piece of mind in such a horrid predicament. Never once does he complain or beg for mercy in the presence of Joshua. It is as if he has already accepted his fate, and is now dedicated to maintaining the best possible experience for Joshua, for however much time they may have left, by transforming their dark future into a game of hope.
If Joshua really knew that innocent people around him were being systematically murdered, and him, his mother and father were probably next, the devastating trauma of that massive nightmare would haunt his every waking hour. The unrelenting certainty of sudden death would make it impossible to eat, sleep, think or appreciate life. Inner peace is the priceless gift that Guido gave Joshua by bending the rotten truth until it became its polar opposite. Ignorance definitely becomes bliss.
GUIDO: [carrying his son through the camp] You are such a good boy. You sleep now. Dream sweet dreams. Maybe we are both dreaming. Maybe this is all a dream, and in the morning, Mommy will wake us up with milk and cookies. Then, after we eat, I will make love to her two or three times. If I can.
Guido succeeds in two of the unwritten laws of being the ideal parent: give your child opportunities to flourish and keep them safe. Through this imaginary game, Guido is teaching his son to not quit (a fool-proof way to not fail) and to be self-reliant. Sure, he is misleading Joshua, but Guido understands the fragile nature of a child’s limited worldview.
For his noble self-sacrifice, his storytelling savvy, and his immaculate beauty radar, Guido is one easy-to-love GREAT CHARACTER.
At one level, we can look at Guido’s story as being about steadfastness, clinging to the game as a means to protect his son from the awful truth surrounding them and keeping him hidden. And so the fact he stays the course with such purposefulness throughout is one of the main thematic points: In the face of eventual annihilation, Guido persists. And so one could say his lack of an arc by maintaining his hopefulness is central to his character’s story.
But then I wonder if there is a subtle arc for his character as well. He begins a carefree fellow who fully enjoys his life, then thrust into in the concentration camp, Guido symbolically gives his fate over to his son by concocting the lie of the ‘game.’ Once begun, he has a choice every step of the way: To continue with the lie in order to protect his son or tell the truth and risk his son’s life. Guido persists with the lie, each time a selfless act. Then he takes the final step: With his death, he moves beyond symbolism to literally giving up his life for his son. If that is accurate, then not only does it suggest a character arc, it also speaks to a measure of growth on Guido’s part.
Thanks to Jason for yet another Great Character post. Join us in comments for a discussion of Guido in the movie Life is Beautiful.
Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher who lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In his most famous work, The World as Will and Idea, he expresses the idea that the will is a universal and omnipresent force, not something that belongs to the individual. He holds that this will is more important than the rational mind, though it is also the root of all suffering.
The use of Schopenhauer's ideas in the film is puzzling for several reasons. Guido misinterprets Schopenhauer's stress on the importance of the will to mean that the force of will is sufficient to create actions and manipulate one's surroundings. In fact, Schopenhauer's view is that life is aimless and painful; the will creates unhappiness and should be nullified if possible. It is ironic, then, that Guido uses the Schopenhauer Method with idealism and hope; he uses it to make Dora look at him when he is wooing her, and he uses it to save his son from discovery and death in the concentration camp. Some critics say that Schopenhauer's philosophies were part of the inspiration for the fascist regime, which makes Guido's use of the Schopenhauer Method to fight against fascism a deeply ironic move.
Guido creates fictitious worlds for those around him. He calls Dora "princess" and claims to be a prince himself. Though they both know the truth, they both are more than willing to entertain the fantasy and play the game. In this way, Guido's fictions are a form of escapism, a way for him to cope with reality and imbue it with beauty.
Guido also cultivates a series of coincidences so that he can appear to have manipulated fate or performed magic. Though he knows that he is simply manipulating someone else, he is not reveling in the deception; he is interested in creating another world for someone else. This underscores the idea that a person's perception is intrinsic to his reality. Guido changes the way those around him perceive the world with his manipulations, and thus he affects how they deal with the rest of the world. When Guido rides up on a horse to rescue Dora, he is entertaining the fantasy of the knight rescuing the damsel in distress. However, he actually is rescuing her from her surroundings and actually is whisking her away on a horse. Similarly, when he tells Giosue that everything in the concentration camp is a game, he is creating a fiction to keep Giosue's spirits up. However, at the end of the film, Giosue has survived the concentration camp with perseverance and bravery, and his life and the lessons he has learned are very real. In Life is Beautiful, it appears, fantasy can become reality.
Guido is decidedly naive, or at least, he presents himself that way. When Ferruccio describes the Schopenhauer Method to him, he takes it very seriously and very literally, failing to understand that it is a state of mind and not a magic trick. This naivete is a form of innocence that often makes him seem incapable of understanding cruelty or evil in others. When his uncle Eliseo shows him that his horse has been painted wih the words "Jewish horse," he takes it as an annoying prank rather than an omen of violence and hostility. Guido's naivete belies his faith in the good of humanity.
Giosue has the innocence of a child, and Guido fights to preserve this innocence. The game he concocts for Giosue shields him from the uglier parts of human nature. In addition to protecting his son's life, Guido protects his son's innocence. In Life is Beautiful, innocence is an outlook, not something pure that can be tainted. Though the film spans several years, Guido never learns to drive, choosing to ride a bike instead. Guido understands the misdeeds that are being done to him by the fascist leaders of the concentration camp, but he prefers to maintain a positive outlook. Giosue is exposed to the same misdeeds, but Guido imposes his positive (albeit deliberately constructed) attitude on his son. Guido chooses to cherish innocence in himself and others because he loves humanity and refuses to become jaded by man's failings.
Silence marks both bravery and cowardice in the film. Uncle Eliseo illustrates the concept of silence as bravery: when confronted with unusual hostility, he reacts stoically. The first time he appears in the film, he has just been accosted by anti-Semitic "barbarians." When asked why he did not cry out, he explains that "sometimes silence is the best weapon." He goes about his daily life, barely acknowledging that he has just been attacked, instead focusing his attention on helping his nephew Guido settle in to his new accommodations. He views the impending dangers of fascism as a series of trials, and he tries to bear these burdens with grace.
Doctor Lessing is also silent about the treatment of the Jews, but this silence is less noble. As a ranking officer, he has considerable power in the Fascist party. His words bear weight, and his silence allows the Fascists to continue their actions without opposition. His refusal to help Guido condemns him. While he does not actually kill anyone, his inaction contributes to the evils already taking place. His silence is cowardly, and his decision not to oppose the Fascist party and their treatment of the Jews (among them his own friend Guido) amounts to implicit consent.
Guido loves solving puzzles, so riddles deeply appeal to him. He is particularly skilled at solving them, and Doctor Lessing comments that Guido is truly remarkable in this regard. This facility with riddles is a metaphor for how Guido deals with life. He loves to find solutions to difficult problems, and he is always looking for ways to charm or protect those around them with his quick, insightful mind.
When Doctor Lessing tells Guido a riddle at the dinner party, shattering Guido's belief that the doctor is going to help him and his family escape, the gravity of Guido's situation is contrasted with the inherently trivial nature of the riddle. Before the Holocaust, life was far simpler, and the "problems" with which people occupied themselves were of a far lighter sort, involving dramatically lower stakes. Riddles (or, perhaps, quotidian problems) seem surreal and silly in comparison to Guido's present situation.
Bravery is an ubiquitous theme throughout Life is Beautiful. The pressures of anti-Semitism, cruelty, and prejudice affect everyone in the film, and each character's reaction to these pressures is highly indicative of his or her personal beliefs and proclivities.
Dora is a paragon of bravery, and her dilemmas in the film mirror the dilemmas faced by countless inhabitants of Italy in the 1930s. At the beginning of the film, she finds herself trapped in a relationship with a man she does not love, surrounded by socialites who do not think or act like she does. She hates her surroundings but feels helpless to escape. When Guido comes along, however, she realizes that there is another option: following her heart. She bravely leaves the safety of her surroundings to be with her true love, and she becomes far happier for having done so. Dora's sense of being swept up by the inertia of her surroundings recalls how many Italians felt when the Fascists came to power. Dora does not like what is happening in her life, but she sees no viable alternative. Likewise, many Italians felt that opposing the government was impossibly difficult and dangerous. On the one hand, their silence amounted to consent; on the other hand, their silence could be interpreted as cowardice and a lack of bravery. When Guido sweeps in on a horse and rescues Dora, he shows that such bravery is possible and highly desirable; his act serves as an allegory for (and an endorsement of) opposition to the government.
A disaster such as the Holocaust is much more complicated than a natural disaster such as a hurricane. Natural disasters test an individual's bravery but are initiated in ways that normally are wholly external to humanity. The Holocaust, in contrast, was the direct result of individual choices and decisions (and most likely not the result of an impersonal Schopenhauer-like "will"). Whereas a natural disaster can be seen as a battle between society and nature, disasters such as the Holocaust pit society against itself. During the Holocaust, each person had to analyze the situation and decide whether or not to embrace society's new values. Bravery was tested along with personal allegiances and personal values. The conflicts that arose in the wake of these complex choices tested bravery even further. For example, a Nazi official with a Jewish uncle would have had to weigh his allegiance to his state against his allegiance to his family, and the question of how to be "brave" would not have a simple answer. An Italian-Jewish farmer who owned land in Italy would have had to decide whether to flee the country or keep the land that had been in his family for ages, weighing his love for his home against his instinct for survival. Perhaps "bravery" provides too simple a scale on which to weigh the decisions of those involved in such a complicated matter. Humanity, idealism, individuality, and willpower are pertinent factors, and sometimes "doing the right thing" is not so simple as being brave or courageous in the face of risk. Brave actions depend on a host of intellectual, practical, and theological virtues.
Guido continually attempts to give the impression that he can alter the course of fate. He woos Dora by manipulating his surroundings, making it seem as though he is creating miracles when in reality he is simply deftly orchestrating a series of coincidences. For instance, when he and Dora are discussing the metaphorical "key to her heart," he guides her to a spot below a window and calls out to "Maria" for "the key," knowing full well that a woman named Maria lives in the apartment above and is in the habit of throwing the key down to her husband whenever he yells her name. Guido pretends that he is calling out to the Biblical Mary, thereby creating a lovely fiction to surprise and entertain his beloved. While Dora surely suspects that something has been forethought, the elaborate ruse is undeniably charming. In this sense, a coincidence is a planned convergence of events.
Guido also uses coincidence to control his surroundings. He perhaps has an unusual degree of need to feel a sense of control in an anti-Semitic era. Life is Beautiful also uses coincidence to show that the things that cannot be controlled are not always negative; sometimes, such events are quite magical in their own right. Though Guido masterfully controls coincidences to great ends, he of course is limited by his actual surroundings. For example, he is the one taken by surprise when Dora falls out of a barn into his arms, even though her having done so supports the story he has been telling to a little girl about being a prince and looking for a princess. The coincidence lends a happy ending to his story, but he had no part in it. Also, at the very end, a real tank picks up Giosue and takes him out of the concentration camp. Guido could not possibly have foreseen or controlled this lucky event. By pure coincidence, Giosue's dreams came true and Guido's game was completed. Coincidences such as these imply that there is some divine force working to control life--is it somehow a kind of anti-Schopenhauer "will" that creates happiness instead of unhappines? Individuals can take part in controlling their destinies, but they cannot control everything--yet, it often seems that something is doing so.