With this opening line, Roberto Benigni, Director, lead character, and writer (with Vincenzo Cerami) of this film, establishes its symbolic, rather than realistic, emphasis. Set in 1930s Italy, the film opens as a slapstick comedy, with the rubber-faced Benigni (who won the Academy Award as Best Actor for this role) playing Guido Orifice, a hyperactive clown, as he repeatedly surprises a beautiful young woman, acts as the clever hotel waiter, and attempts to exchange hats with men he meets.
Despite the frantic comedy, however, the fascist dictatorship and the growing anti-semitism loom constantly in the background, as Guido's uncle (Giustino Durano) is assaulted, his horse is painted green, and a local school principal talks about getting rid of defectives. After a lovely segue to represent the passage of six years or so, we again see Guido, now married to his beautiful Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), and meet Giosue Orifice, his son, winningly played by six-year-old Giorgio Cantorini. Totally committed to protecting his son from the horrors of anti-semitism, Giorgio turns everything into a joke.
When the family is eventually rounded up and shipped to a concentration camp, Guido turns the event into a "birthday surprise" for Giosue and tries to ensure his survival by pretending that all the events are part of a huge game, with the winner getting a full-sized tank. Disappearances from the camp are explained as people dropping out of the game.
In some ways, Guido's game-playing sets the reality of the concentration camps into sharp relief, intensifying the horror by showing the lengths to which a father will go to protect the innocence of his child. The viewer knows that the game is a pitiful, and ultimately hopeless, attempt to hold back the reality of the Final Solution but cannot help hoping that against all odds, somehow Guido and Giosue will win. The horrors of the Holocaust are obvious here, and the ironies of seeing both Guido and his captors all playing some sort of macabre "game" will not be lost on the viewer.
I thoroughly enjoyed Benigni's pratfalls, his touching attention to his family, the music (by Nicola Piovani, which also won an Academy Award), and the cleverness of the plot. But I also found that my realistic knowledge of the Holocaust was so overwhelming I could not "suspend [my] disbelief," and I was unable to appreciate the film as the wonder-filled "fable" Benigni intended. Mary Whipple