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Ron Reed

Life is Beautiful

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I remember someone posting comments to the old board about LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL - how their appreciation of the film had much to do with being a father. Or maybe it's a review on somebody's site? I'd love to get a look at that stuff.

I did a search at the old site and came up empty-handed. Of course, that doesn't mean it's not there - Mr Chattaway always seems to find what I cannot. Help?

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ok,

I'm back.

After watching the film for a second and even third time, I have come to the conclusion that the film is really not about "finding life beautiful" at all. But rather about Dignity.

Exhibit A: Guido creates the world around him often for humourous or diversionary effect and the world abides to his will. The key falls from the sky when he wants it, the hat, his poet friend's car happens to look like his enemy's car... etc, etc. It all works out for him.

Exhibit B: Shopenaur. The concept is described as "you are what you think you are." Guido thinks he is the man for this woman, and the universe seems to agree.

Now, until my most recent viewings I thought those two were simply leading to the film saying that the world is what you make it. But in the harsher concentration camp moments the theory falls apart under the weight of the situation's severity. You can't will away genocide by playing a cutsie game. However, this time I have noticed a recurring theme of dignity throughout the film.

Exhibit C: It begins with guido calling himself a prince and the woman he loves a princess. They live like that as well. Even with their meager lifestyle. Then, there is the speech of the uncle to Guido to describe how to bow. "You serve, you are not a servant. God serves his children. But he is not a servant." And then, finally, in the concentration camp when guido gets a hold of the louspeaker controls, he calls out "Buon Journo Princepessa!" And Dora's spirits are lifted. Not only because she knows her family is alive, but because she's reminded that she is a princess.

so, the film is not saying, laugh at the horrors of life and you'll never be sad. It's saying, that only you may construct or destruct the importance of your personhood, if you live believing you are a prince, you are a prince.

"We are no longer slaves..."

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DanBuck wrote:

: After watching the film for a second and even third time, I have come to

: the conclusion that the film is really not about "finding life beautiful" at

: all. But rather about Dignity.

Hmmm. Thanks for reminding me about the "serve/servant" line, but I think I'd have to disagree -- I think there is something to be said for Mike D'Angelo's view that the film is ultimately "a pointed, extremely disturbing parable about the human capacity for denial".

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Yeah, I remember that review. And it sat wrong with me. He had a point that if the only message was "the power of positive thinking" it seems to crumble instead of stand up to the very circumstances of the film.

But under the banner of human dignity, I find the film to hold more true. The "game and the denial" is not Guido's way of hiding from difficulty, but a way to show his son that they are not in fact at the level of "dogs" (as signs in store windows imply) but rather the winners of a game, choosers of their own destiny, indeed, men. The "game" amidst genocide is merely a severe example. In a setting where people are treated in the most inhumane was possible, the only thing that cannot be extinguished is their humanity.

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In fact, looking back I see Dale making this comment "I don't agree with the thrust of Mike D'Angelo's contrarian view of Life is Beautiful, but many of the secondary arguments made me process the film in a very different way. "

He doesn't elaborate, but in retrospect that's exactly what D'angelo's review did for me. Made me reevaluate the film's power.

oh and Ron, I definately see this film differently as a father. Not philosophically, just emotionally.

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DanBuck wrote:

: But under the banner of human dignity, I find the film to hold more true.

I guess I just have trouble seeing how a film's promotion of "dignity" can hold "true" when the dignity itself is rooted in falsehood. And what do you do with scenes like the one where Guido wiggles his fingers in the direction of the troops who are about to discover his son, if the central theme of the film is "dignity" and not "denial"?

As I wrote in that earlier thread:

Yeah, the last scene in that film has always bugged me, actually, because it ends with a PICTURE of the young Joshua, who does not know that his father is dead, and the VOICE of the adult Joshua, who knows that his father is dead -- and I always wanted to know what had happened in between. When did Joshua learn that his father was killed? Did his mother tell him right away, as soon as she found out, or did she keep it secret for many years? How did Joshua deal with the shock of learning the truth?

In his review of the film, D'Angelo writes: "What it is, for those willing to look beyond the relentlessly inspiring surface, is a pointed, extremely disturbing parable about the human capacity for denial; despite the apparently triumphant conclusion, it's about as uplifting as an express elevator to Hell." I don't think the film necessarily presents us with that sort of either/or -- for a long time, it has seemed to me that
Life Is Beautiful
was actually trying to be, to borrow D'Angelo's words, an "inspiring" film about "the human capacity for denial".

In my own
of the film for a couple of Christian papers, I didn't address this at terribly great length, but merely wrote: "The question of deception, even when motivated by love, could also have been explored in further depth. Guido lies to his son with the best of intentions, but is that truly the best way to deal with the world's brutality and indifference -- to pretend it isn't there? In a nutshell . . . I was very curious to see how Joshua would deal with the inevitable moment of his disillusionment, but it never came." By the time
came out, though, I had had a little more time to think about this . . .

: The "game and the denial" is not Guido's way of hiding from difficulty,

: but a way to show his son that they are not in fact at the level of "dogs"

: (as signs in store windows imply) but rather the winners of a game,

: choosers of their own destiny, indeed, men.

So a "man" is someone who "chooses his own destiny"?

Dare I ask, is this a particularly Christian theme?

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I think the cynical interpretation of Life is Beautiful as being about denial is wrong.

Benigni's father, Luigi, a farmer, carpenter, and bricklayer, was a prisoner in a Nazi labor camp from 1943 to 1945. Benigni was born in 1952 and obviously wasn't in the camp with his father, but according to Benigni his father later told him and other family members stories of the camp, defusing the horror with humor to protect them from the full brunt of what he had really suffered. In spite of this, it wasn't until production of Life Is Beautiful was actually underway that Benigni realized that he was making a sort of tribute to his father's experiences.

I don't think it's correct to dismiss the narrator's grateful remembrance of the "gift" of his father's approach to dealing with the horror of their situation. Nor do I think it's correct to criticize the film for making light of the Holocaust. The climactic shooting of Guido himself, the wordless horror of the scene in which Guido, carrying his son, wanders through the fog, coming upon a huge mound of bodies, and retreats, speechless, back into the fog, the sickening moment in the camp when Guido realizes that his acquaintance Dr. Lessing, whom he had believed was interested in trying to help him, has nothing more on his mind than his obsession with riddles, and Guido's painful separation from Dora and the agony of his forced labor, all militate against a Pollyanna interpretation of the film and its title.

That's not to say that the film aspires to be a remotely plausible account of survival in a concentration camp -- any more than the first half of the film aspires to be a remotely plausible account of courtship and romance. No man ever wooed a woman as Guido woos Dora, nor did any man ever conduct himself in a concentration camp as does Guido. But there's a difference between fictionalizing and trivializing.

In a nutshell, there seem to me to be four possible ways to take the title of the film:

    Of these, the first two seem too negative for the hopeful tone with which the film ends. The third, however, seems too positive, especially in light of the tragic element in the end as well as the fact that no amount of positive thinking can make Guido

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Regarding the questions Peter raises in connection with the central deception that Guido tells his son, that the concentration camp is actually a kind of contest, the following points seem to me worth considering:

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    DanBuck wrote:

    : But under the banner of human dignity, I find the film to hold more true.

    I guess I just have trouble seeing how a film's promotion of "dignity" can hold "true" when the dignity itself is rooted in falsehood. And what do you do with scenes like the one where Guido wiggles his fingers in the direction of the troops who are about to discover his son, if the central theme of the film is "dignity" and not "denial"?

    But the film is not about truth telling - its about finding dignity amisdt genocide. Your dismissals remind me of those who dismiss The Professional for claiming Leon should not have taught the girl to be a hit(wo)man. Or those who criticize City of Angels/Wings of Desire for not containing accurate metaphysics. You let it make its point, tell its tale. LIB is not advocating lying to promote dignity, but demonstrating the importance of finding that diginity. And perhaps its evev valuing one over the other, but to assume its discarding the importance of truth is hasty.

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    Mountie-like, I got my man. Not a Promontorian at all - Robert K. Johnston, in Reel Spirituality;

    Audiences see with a visceral eye. I went to see LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL a second time chiefly because I wanted to again identify with the father in the film. Roberto Benigni's character goes to extraordinary lengths to support and protect his son, even after he and his boy are arrested and put into a concentration camp because they are Jewish. The games he plays for the sake of his young son are deadly serious, and we as viewers do not know whether to laugh or cry. But what is abundantly clear is that he knew what it was to love with a father's heart. Having two dauthers myself, I wanted to feel that experience again. His extravagant love knew no bounds. Her is what I wished for my relationship with my daughters as well With some movies, we want the character to be us. Love sotries, horror films, detective stories - lacking a visceral eye, they fall flat. (pg 118)

    He continues with these ideas on pages 158-160;

    Human portrayals in film have greater theological connotations than we often realize.... Stories that portray the turly human bind their viewers with the religious expressions of humankind. They awaken a holistic sense in their viewers, providing windows of meaning. Movies are evocative, portraying life's great experiences (e.g. love, birth, work, death) or their opposites, so that the gift of life becomes known by its negation....

    For me, ...LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL provided such an experience of human transcendence. As a father with one daughter in college and one about to launch her adult career, I was moved deeply by the portrayal of a father's love for his child. Here was a sacrificial and yet joyous love that was boundless. Her is how I should have been more often with my daughters. Here is what it is to be a Father. Life is beautiful within the loving embrace of a family; it is worth any sacrifice to love those near to us. ...

    The transition from town to concentration camp is heart-stopping. But the contrast works; the joy and innocence of the opening scenes only make the pathos of the second setting more heartfelt. Some have questioned the appropriateness of linking laughter with the unthinkable. Is not the Holocaust beyond humor? But such a rsponse misses both the genre and the intention of the movie. For this film is not about Italy in 1939 or Germany in 1945. It is, instead, a celebration of a father's love, even in the midst of unspeakable tragedy and pain.

    The movie begins by saying that it is going to tell a fable. It thus invites the viewer to see Reality behind, and in, reality. The humor in LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL was inviting; the horror of humankind's inhumanity was chilling. But the sacrificial and trusting love between the boy and his father was compelling. Ultimately, in this film the father's love became paradigmatic of what a parent's love should be; it was even analogous to the Father's love (I John 3:1). To hold your child in your arms (or to be held in your parent's arms) is transformative. In the words of Joshua as the movie ends, "We won."

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    SDG wrote:

    : I think the cynical interpretation of Life is Beautiful as being about denial

    : is wrong.

    On what basis is it cynical, if it is honestly held to be an accurate reading of the text?

    : Benigni's father, Luigi, a farmer, carpenter, and bricklayer, was a

    : prisoner in a Nazi labor camp from 1943 to 1945. . . .

    Interesting, but not necessarily relevant, in the final analysis. As D'Angelo himself notes, a text is what it is, and is not necessarily what its authors thought it was or wanted it to be.

    : I don't think it's correct to dismiss the narrator's grateful remembrance

    : of the "gift" of his father's approach to dealing with the horror of their

    : situation.

    And now I shall risk contradicting my previous point by noting that the narration was not Benigni's doing but was added to the film later, on the recommendation of Harvey Weinstein. So it's open to question just how relevant anything the narrator says really is.

    : Nor do I think it's correct to criticize the film for making light of the Holocaust.

    I certainly do not do that.

    : 1. Throughout the whole ordeal, it's questionable how much Giosue ever

    : really believes his father's tale, and even how much Guido really expects

    : him to.

    I certainly never got the impression we were supposed to believe that Giosue had any doubts about what his father was telling him, or that Giosue 'really' knew what was going on.

    : In the beginning of the film, the narrator, Giosue as a grown man looking

    : back, describes the story as "simple" and "like a fable."

    Yes, I believe this was Weinstein's idea. He obviously figured the film would do better business if the audience was told from the beginning not to take it too seriously or think about it too hard.

    DanBuck wrote:

    : But the film is not about truth telling - its about finding dignity amisdt genocide.

    That may be your argument, but I think you'd have to change "genocide" to something more abstract and universal, in order to make a more suitable contrast with "dignity". If "lying" is just a plot element but not what the film is really about, then the same goes for "genocide". In fact, I think the genocide is even MORE incidental to the film than the theme of denial. Genocide is just one of many things about which people go into denial, and the story could easily have been about any number of other subjects while still making that point.

    Ron wrote:

    : Not a Promontorian at all - Robert K. Johnston, in Reel Spirituality . . .

    Yeah, your original post reminded me of Johnston's remarks, but you said you were looking for an earlier thread, so I didn't think to mention his book.

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    Peter T Chattaway wrote:

    : I think the cynical interpretation of
    Life is Beautiful
    as being about denial

    : is wrong.

    On what basis is it cynical, if it is honestly held to be an accurate reading of the text?

    No, I meant, the interpretation of the film as cynical in saying "life is beautiful" while meaning the opposite. (Of course, if interpretations that are honestly held to be accurate are exempt from the charge of cynicism, I don't suppose we can ever call any position cynical, unless we're prepared to charge its holders with dishonesty on top of it...)

    : Benigni's father, Luigi, a farmer, carpenter, and bricklayer, was a

    : prisoner in a Nazi labor camp from 1943 to 1945. . . .

    Interesting, but not necessarily relevant, in the final analysis. As D'Angelo himself notes, a text is what it is, and is not necessarily what its authors thought it was or wanted it to be.

    That's true as regards the text's achievement, but the text's meaning cannot be separated from the meaning intended by the author to be understood by the audience, as we've discussed earlier.

    : I don't think it's correct to dismiss the narrator's grateful remembrance

    : of the "gift" of his father's approach to dealing with the horror of their

    : situation.

    And now I shall risk contradicting my previous point by noting that the narration was not Benigni's doing but was added to the film later, on the recommendation of Harvey Weinstein. So it's open to question just how relevant anything the narrator says really is.

    That is a fair point, although as you say it does seem to contradict your previous point. (And I for one will not risk contradicting my previous point by now arguing that the work is what it is regardless of the artist's intentions!) smile.gif

    However, question: When you say that the voiceovers were not merely added on the recommendation of Harvey Weinstein but also were "not Benigni's doing," do you mean that Benigni wasn't involved in the drafting of the lines or their imposition on the film? If Weinstein suggested it and Benigni did it, then even if they didn't represent Benigni's first creative choice they could still reflect his authorial intent regarding the interpretation of the film.

    For that matter, even if Benigni wasn't involved at all, it could still be the case that Weinstein's interpretation of Benigni's intent is correct and the lines do illuminate the film's meaning as intended by Benigni. However, in the absence of any particular reason to trust Weinstein's critical judgment or respect for Benigni's intent (and I for one have no such reasons), the evidentiary value of the lines would certainly be diminished if not obliterated if it could be shown that Benigni was in no way involved in adding them to the film.

    : Nor do I think it's correct to criticize the film for making light of the Holocaust.

    I certainly do not do that.

    No, but many do, and I was just throwing that out because I had the content. smile.gif

    : 1. Throughout the whole ordeal, it's questionable how much Giosue ever

    : really believes his father's tale, and even how much Guido really expects

    : him to.

    I certainly never got the impression we were supposed to believe that Giosue had any doubts about what his father was telling him, or that Giosue 'really' knew what was going on.

    Watch the film again. Giosue is decidedly skeptical of his father at a number of points in the second half of the film; he never believes the camp is fun, and I think it's quite possible that all along he trusts his father more than he trusts his father's story. In fact, I don't think he ever really, fully believes his father's story until he actually sees the Allied tank roll into the camp.

    : In the beginning of the film, the narrator, Giosue as a grown man looking

    : back, describes the story as "simple" and "like a fable."

    Yes, I believe this was Weinstein's idea. He obviously figured the film would do better business if the audience was told from the beginning not to take it too seriously or think about it too hard.

    I think I've thought reasonably hard about the film and I think I take it reasonably seriously. I note, for example, that in the first half of the film Guido commits many petty acts of dishonesty (stealing eggs, the hat, etc.), that the film doesn't pretend are not dishonest, but for which Guido isn't condemned either. Guido's deception regarding the concentration camp, however, is central to the movie's theme, and the film would seem to stand or fall (morally, I mean) on our final opinion of the moral viability of the film's approach to this deception; and of course the film doesn't seem to condemn the deception. Nor do I believe that the deception, judged by real-world moral standards, can be held to be morally justifiable; I don't believe one can lie to one's children in order to protect them from terrible knowledge, though of course one doesn't always have to tell them the whole truth. I have actually heard it argued that cognitive differences between children and adults make telling pleasant falsehoods to children morally benign (e.g., Santa Claus), but I think the duty to truthfulness extends to our dealings with children; indeed, with my own children I've made a point of letting them know that I will not lie to them ever for any reason. But it's a view that has been argued. In taking the film as a "fable" akin to the parable of the dishonest steward, I don't think I'm declining to think too hard about the film (not that you were accusing me of doing so).

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    In fact, I believe it is not the narration of the film at the end that is the most telling but rather the dialogue. Joshua states "We won, We Won!" as he dives into his mother's arms. And the viewer has to agree. Perhaps this is the same point the Pianist comes to. It is not the method of survival that is the thrust of the film, but the survival itself. Not in support of "The end justifies the means" but rather as a tribute to the tenacity of the human spirit.

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    DanBuck wrote:

    In fact, I believe it is not the narration of the film at the end that is the most telling but rather the dialogue. Joshua states "We won, We Won!" as he dives into his mother's arms. And the viewer has to agree. Perhaps this is the same point the Pianist comes to. It is not the method of survival that is the thrust of the film, but the survival itself. Not in support of "The end justifies the means" but rather as a tribute to the tenacity of the human spirit.

    Um. To me the phrase "tribute to the tenacity of the human spirit" sounds too grand and triumphant (triumphalistic?) to describe either the grim restraint of The Pianist or the muted, sad whimsy of Life is Beautiful. While I don't agree with the cynical "really life isn't beautiful" interpretation of Benigni's film, I do think Giosue's "We won, we won!" must be taken in a bittersweetly ironic sense, for there is also an important sense in which Guido has not won -- he has not survived, he has been taken away from his family forever. To be sure, Guido "won" in the sense that he succeeded to the end in protecting his son, but it's also true that his death was in vain, since his efforts to reach his wife didn't affect her survival and had he not gone back to try to reach her they would all have survived. But of course he couldn't have known that when he went to look for her.

    In any case, I see the film less as a tribute to the tenacity of the human spirit as to paternal (and romantic) love and the desire to protect one's loved ones against all odds, even to one's own suffering (the forced labor), humiliation (strutting goofily before the Nazi who would execute him), and death.

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    Guido's efforts were not in vain in regards to his wife. He was in fact, hugely successful in giving her hope on two specific occasions. The loudspeaker incident and the phonograph incident.

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    So a "man" is someone who "chooses his own destiny"?

    Dare I ask, is this a particularly Christian theme?

    Dare, dare.

    Yeah, I have no problem with it. Begnini may seeking out an entirely secular concept of this theme, since his character never in the film indicates a faith in God. But I can take this message as a sign for us to be more than conquerors by choosing to serve Christ. Are we the author's of out destiny? no. But do we have a role? Certainly.

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    And a question? Why does some other guy's suggesting the addition of the theme mean that it wasn't part of Begnini's vision. If it wasn't it wouldn't be in the film. RB is the director! Perhaps the addition elaborated and helped what RB wanted to portray.

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    DanBuck wrote:

    : But the film is not about truth telling - its about finding dignity amisdt genocide.

    PTC: That may be your argument, but I think you'd have to change "genocide" to something more abstract and universal, in order to make a more suitable contrast with "dignity". If "lying" is just a plot element but not what the film is really about, then the same goes for "genocide". In fact, I think the genocide is even MORE incidental to the film than the theme of denial. Genocide is just one of many things about which people go into denial, and the story could easily have been about any number of other subjects while still making that point.

    okay. but isn't this true of all films, dare I say, art. They are not really about mobsters, or genocide, or piano players, or motherless fish, but about the truth of our world our god and most often, our selves.

    so if you like: "It's about finding dignity amidst degredation or oppression."

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    DanBuck wrote:

    In fact' date=' I believe it is not the narration of the film at the end that is the most telling but rather the dialogue. Joshua states "We won, We Won!" as he dives into his mother's arms. And the viewer has to agree. Perhaps this is the same point the Pianist comes to. It is not the method of survival that is the thrust of the film, but the survival itself. Not in support of "The end justifies the means" but rather as a tribute to the tenacity of the human spirit.

    SDG: Um. To me the phrase "tribute to the tenacity of the human spirit" sounds too grand and triumphant (triumphalistic?) to describe either the grim restraint of The Pianist or the muted, sad whimsy of Life is Beautiful.

    Since when is a tribute grand. There is victory in both films. Undeniably so, in fact. It is tempered by the events that surround it, but both films are triumphant.

    sdg:

    While I don't agree with the cynical "really life isn't beautiful" interpretation of Benigni's film, I do think Giosue's "We won, we won!" must be taken in a bittersweetly ironic sense, for there is also an important sense in which Guido has not won -- he has not survived, he has been taken away from his family forever. To be sure, Guido "won" in the sense that he succeeded to the end in protecting his son

    That's a victory in my eyes for sure.
    SDG:

    In any case, I see the film less as a tribute to the tenacity of the human spirit as to paternal (and romantic) love and the desire to protect one's loved ones against all odds, even to one's own suffering (the forced labor), humiliation (strutting goofily before the Nazi who would execute him), and death.

    I don't see much discintiction between the two.

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    DanBuck wrote:

    Guido's efforts were not in vain in regards to his wife. He was in fact, hugely successful in giving her hope on two specific occasions. The loudspeaker incident and the phonograph incident.

    I only said that his death was in vain, not that all his efforts on his wife's behalf had been in vain.

    Why does some other guy's suggesting the addition of the theme mean that it wasn't part of Begnini's vision. If it wasn't it wouldn't be in the film. RB is the director! Perhaps the addition elaborated and helped what RB wanted to portray.

    RB was the director but directors do not always get final cut, and foreign films distributed in the U.S. by Miramax sometimes look quite different in the U.S. than they do internationally. Harvey Weinstein is not the kind of guy who favors artistic integrity above all else, and is entirely likely to make whatever changes he feels will make the film play better with American audiences. I'd be very interested to know (a) whether the version of the film that played internationally had the voiceovers, (cool.gif whether Benigni was involved in the decision to include them or what they would say, and © what he thought of the end result.

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    DanBuck wrote:

    In any case, I see the film less as a tribute to the tenacity of the human spirit as to paternal (and romantic) love and the desire to protect one's loved ones against all odds, even to one's own suffering (the forced labor), humiliation (strutting goofily before the Nazi who would execute him), and death.

    I don't see much discintiction between the two.

    Well, for one thing, to me at least, the first sounds triumphant, and the second sounds bittersweet, hopeful-melancholy.

    Also, "tenacity of the human spirit" places the emphasis on the heroic individual overcoming obstacles, while the other emphasizes relationships and sacrifice on behalf of others.

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    DanBuck wrote:

    In any case, I see the film less as a tribute to the tenacity of the human spirit as to paternal (and romantic) love and the desire to protect one's loved ones against all odds, even to one's own suffering (the forced labor), humiliation (strutting goofily before the Nazi who would execute him), and death.

    I don't see much discintiction between the two.

    Well, for one thing, to me at least, the first sounds triumphant, and the second sounds bittersweet, hopeful-melancholy.

    Also, "tenacity of the human spirit" places the emphasis on the heroic individual overcoming obstacles, while the other emphasizes relationships and sacrifice on behalf of others.

    I can't imagine a more accurate depiction of the human spirit than the desire for relationships.

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    Well, I'm not going to argue with you about it. smile.gif But to my ear there's a meaningful difference in connotation, and when I hear "tribute to the tenacity of the human spirit" I think of something that doesn't apply, for me, to Life is Beautiful or The Pianist. (In fact, in my Pianist review I specifically said that the film wasn't a "celebration of the human spirit"... a phrase that may or may not be thought to significantly overlap with "tribute to the tenacity of the human spirit.")

    For me, films I think of when I hear a phrase like "tenacity of the human spirit" include, say, Cast Away, Rocky, The Shawshank Redemption, Gone with the Wind, Alive, Gladiator, Cool Hand Luke, and (expanding the concept to include animated protagonists who are technically not human) Finding Nemo and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. (I don't necessarily like all of those movies, but they're the kind of movie I think of.) The emphasis, for me, is less on relationships than what I think of when watching Life is Beautiful.

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