Guess what? It was the best of the five nominated films. Seriously. Choose a different film to base your Oscar bashing on.

The 71st annual Academy Awards, for the film year 1998.  The nominations were announced on February 9, 1999 and the awards were held on March 21, 1999.

Best Picture:  Shakespeare in Love

  • Saving Private Ryan
  • The Thin Red Line
  • Elizabeth
  • Life is Beautiful

Most Surprising Omission:  The Truman Show

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Out of Sight

Rank (out of 83) Among Best Picture Years:  #30

The Race:  Things started very slowly in 1998.  By mid-June only two films could even remotely be taken as awards contenders and both of those films (Bulworth and Primary Colors) were political satires that were more likely to score in acting and writing categories than in Best Picture.  Two other highly anticipated films from major directors, The Big Lebowski (the first Coen Brothers film since their Oscar winning Fargo) and Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, seemed headed much more for cult status than awards.  But in June, two films came out that finally found critical adoration: The Truman Show, which was Jim Carrey’s big break into respectable acting (and whose director, Peter Weir, already had two Oscar nominations), and Out of Sight, which was doing the same for George Clooney.  Out of Sight was relying more on the critics while The Truman Show looked to be the rare 1998 film to make money and impress critics.

Then Saving Private Ryan opened.  The critics were wild about it and they couldn’t stop talking about the daring opening 30 minutes and the feeling of being there at D-Day.  Its opening wasn’t as big as other summer films but it did what the rest of them couldn’t – it kept the crowds coming back, holding the top spot for a full month and would eventually end up the biggest film of the year.  After the previous year’s summer (The Lost World) and awards seasons (Amistad) disappointments, Steven Spielberg seemed likely to conquer the Oscars once again.

Everything seemed to clear a path for Ryan.  The only contender in sight was The Thin Red Line.  Directed by Terrence Malick, who hadn’t made a film in 20 years, it was another World War II epic, but this one took place in the Pacific and had critics eagerly chomping at the bit, but it wouldn’t be out until Christmas.  So in October, critics started looking for other films.  They quickly dismissed Beloved, adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by yet another Oscar winning director (Jonathan Demme).  But they seemed to give applause to Life is Beautiful.  The latter film was a comedy dealing with the Holocaust from one of Italy’s biggest stars: comedian Roberto Benigni.  It had won the Grand Prize in Cannes and had the marketing power of Harvey Weinstein behind it.

The rest of the fall’s fare didn’t seem much of a challenge for Ryan.  There was Elizabeth, a biopic about the 16th century English queen starring Australian actress Cate Blanchett from Indian director Shekhar Kapur.  There was also Gods and Monsters, a film about director James Whale and his strange death which was garnering fantastic reviews for its star Ian McKellen.

The latter films were the benificiaries of the season’s first awards.  The National Board of Review gave Gods and Monsters Best Picture and Best Actor and Elizabeth Best Director.  Saving Private Ryan had to settle for 2nd place, but it made up for it with the two big groups of the season.  Both the New York and LA Film Critics named Ryan Best Picture, though only the Gotham critics gave their award to Spielberg, the latter group’s award going to Malick.

When the Golden Globe nominations were announced in mid-December, the newest film making its move was Shakespeare in Love.  A romantic comedy about the Bard, it had the full power of Miramax marketing behind it, including stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck.  Shakespeare was tied for the lead with 6 nominations and it wouldn’t have to compete with the other big nominees Saving Private Ryan (5 noms), The Truman Show (6 noms) and Elizabeth (3 noms) because they were all in the Drama category.

Meanwhile, all the major contenders (Saving Private Ryan, Shakespeare in Love, The Thin Red Line, Elizabeth, Gods and Monsters, The Truman Show, Out of Sight, Life is Beautiful) were nominated at the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards, with Ryan becoming the first film to win both Picture and Director from the group.  Then came the final major critics group, the National Society of Film Critics, who gave Best Picture and Director to Out of Sight.

While the Globe results surprised no one (Ryan won Picture – Drama and Director while Shakespeare in Love won Picture – Comedy and Screenplay), the guild nominations were beginning to make the overall picture look clearer.  Ryan and Shakespeare were up for the PGA, DGA, WGA and SAG Ensemble.  Life is Beautiful was in for all of those except for the WGA, for which it wasn’t eligible.  Those three films seemed pretty set.  But the future for other films didn’t look so clear.  The Thin Red Line had the all-important DGA nomination but had been blanked at the Globes and had no other major guild nominations.  Out of Sight had a WGA nomination but had also been blanked at the Globes.  Elizabeth hadn’t gotten any major guild nominations except for Actress.  Gods and Monsters looked stronger, with PGA and WGA nominations and The Truman Show looked the strongest, having done well at the Globes and having DGA and WGA nominations.

The Results:  Suddenly it didn’t look like Saving Private Ryan might run away with the Oscar race.  Ryan had 11 nominations, including Picture, Director, Screenplay and Actor.  But Shakespeare in Love was in the lead with a whopping 13 nominations.  Life is Beautiful and The Thin Red Line had both made it into the Picture and Director race as well.  The final nominee, with 7 nominations, wasn’t The Truman Show, which was nominated for Director and Original Screenplay, but instead Elizabeth, which was the first film in five years to make it into the Picture race without either a Director or Screenplay nomination.  The five films had combined for 45 nominations, the most since 1964, but only the first two were expected to matter.

Saving Private Ryan had been the biggest film of the year but was mostly played out.  Shakespeare in Love, on the other hand, had started in a few theaters in mid-December, expanded wider on Christmas day and was being moved wide to capitalize on the nominations.  It continued to draw in crowds every week as Harvey Weinstein made the rounds with every person in Hollywood he could find.  Even though comedies rarely triumphed at the Oscars, it had the requisite romance that had been the highlight of the previous two winners.  In the meantime, while Ryan won the DGA and PGA, Shakespeare took home the SAG Ensemble, Best Actress at SAG (a surprise win) and the WGA award.

On Oscar night, nothing was being made very clear.  Each film won several expected awards.  While Shakespeare had won Best Original Screenplay, Ryan had won Best Director.  The only surprise of the night that gave a hint was the win by Gwyneth Paltrow in the Best Actress race.  But Shakespeare had the most nominations (like every winner since 1991) and had won 6 awards to Ryan‘s 5 (the award had gone to the film with the most awards every year since 1981) and the surprise winner was Shakespeare in Love.  Harvey’s marketing had triumphed and it would be less than 24 hours before pundits would start griping about how it was a bad choice.

Romance and comedy with wit and style

Shakespeare in Love

  • Director:  John Madden
  • Writer:  Marc Norman  /  Tom Stoppard
  • Producer:  David Parfitt  /  Donna Gigliotti  /  Harvey Weinstein  /  Edward Zwick  /  Marc Norman
  • Studio:  Miramax
  • Stars:  Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Geoffrey Rush, Judi Dench
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actress (Paltrow), Supporting Actor (Rush), Supporting Actress (Dench), Editing, Cinematography, Original Musical or Comedic Score, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Oscar Points:  585
  • Length:  123 min
  • Genre:  Comedy  (Romantic)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $100.31 mil  (#18  –  1998)
  • Release Date:  11 December 1998
  • Metacritic Score:  87
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #101  (nominees)  #29  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Original Screenplay, Actress (Paltrow), Supporting Actor (Rush), Supporting Actress (Dench), Editing, Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  410
  • First Watched:  first day of wide release (Christmas) at Regal TV 16 with Kelly Garrett

The Film:  Watching the film on Christmas Day, I was impressed with it.  It was smart and funny and romantic and very charming.  I wasn’t sure if it was as good as Saving Private Ryan and I didn’t think it was as good as Out of Sight (I still don’t), but it was a great romantic comedy.  A year later, when it came out on video much in my life had changed.  I was staring my life in the face and realizing I was about to leave the person I loved.  Suddenly, those final few moments, where Will and Viola are parted, where they hold to each other with all the emotion of their lives overwhelming them, knowing this is their last kiss, their last sight of each other in their lives, took on such a new added dimension.  I understood this emotion and I responded to it.  This was no longer a question of a smart, funny, romantic, charming film, with great wit, wonderful performances, that was wonderfully made.  This was a distinctly moving emotional experience.

Part of it is tied into the fact that Shakespeare in Love pulls off a rare double feat.  Watching the final act again, I am struck by how everything moves towards the happy ending (Sondheim’s words come to mind: “No royal curse / No Trojan Horse / And a happy ending of course”).  It is a romantic comedy after all, and comedies end with a wedding.  But we have already had the wedding and it was between the wrong characters.  But things come together, as Henslowe has been assuring us they will throughout the course of the film, and it’s of course a mystery as to how it all works.  But there the lovers are on stage, performing marvelously, and they are all spared from the worst that could come by the presence of the Queen (the performance by Judi Dench is a final statement about the length of a performance – she is so brilliant and so perfectly commands every scene that she is in that she absolutely deserves this Oscar and the fact that she is really only in three scenes in the film are irrelevant).  It is the happy ending that the masses would wish for.  But the writers also have the courage of their convictions and the lovers are not to be together.  We are reminded this time of Casablanca and how the only proper ending is not the one with love reunited.  That is the brilliance of it all.  We got both the ending we want and the ending it should have and neither side feels cheated.  And for those who want to see true love, they have seen it, and for those of us, however painful it may be to watch, who want to see more of the real world, we get that too.

It isn’t just the writing, of course (which works so perfectly in that we get great romantic comedy combined with such great Shakespeare poetry to go with it).  The film is top notch on every level.  It has an incredible cast, not only in the primary performers (Fiennes is very good and Paltrow is excellent – the derision aimed towards her Oscar because Blanchett should have won is simply stupid – there are a number of films (Dances With Wolves, Shakespeare in Love) and performers (Gwyneth, Halle Berry) who get torn down simply because they weren’t the right choice, but they were good choices and they deserve better), not only in the superb supporting performances (Dench deserved her Oscar and Rush has never been better – almost every line he utters throughout the play is brilliant, starting early on with “I have no time.  Speak prose.”), but in the entire ensemble experience.  All of the acting in the film is first-rate and it is still the only film to be nominated in all five SAG categories.  But there is also the cinematography (very good), the music (the best of the year – especially good during the fade out, as Gwyneth walks across the sand towards the waiting land), the sets, the costumes (both winning deserving Oscars) and the editing (the film is very skillfully constructed).

So why the anger aimed at this film?  Perhaps because people often don’t know great writing when they see it.  Perhaps because people can’t take a romantic comedy as seriously as art as a film with such a powerful half-hour as Saving Private Ryan has.  Perhaps, because in spite of a career that includes Emma, Sliding Doors, The Royal Tenenbaums and Proof, people still can’t see what a great actress Gwyneth Paltrow can be.  Perhaps because they know war is powerful and they don’t know how powerful love can be.  As for me?  Well, I’ll look at the structural weaknesses in Saving Private Ryan.  Then I’ll watch Gwyneth look at Joseph Fiennes in their final scene.  There is pain and love in their exchange, but humor as well (he can not help but be pleased with the name Orsino) and playful wit as they together build the story of Twelfth Night.  But when she assures him that all ends well, and he asks how and she replies “I don’t know.  It’s a mystery.” there is truth in this scene as well.  So often, more than we would admit, it does all end well.

Dreamworks comes up short in the Best Picture race

Saving Private Ryan

  • Director:  Steven Spielberg
  • Writer:  Robert Rodat
  • Producer:  Steven Spielberg  /  Ian Bryce  /  Mark Gordon  /  Gary Levinsohn
  • Studio:  Dreamworks
  • Stars:  Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon, Jeremy Davies
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor, Editing, Cinematography, Original Dramatic Score, Sound, Art Direction, Sound Effects Editing, Makeup
  • Oscar Points:  450
  • Length:  169 min
  • Genre:  War  (World War II)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $216.54 mil  (#1  –  1998)
  • Release Date:  24 July 1998
  • Metacritic Score:  90
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #130  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actor (Hanks), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Visual Effects, Sound Effects Editing, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  390
  • First Watched:  opening weekend at Forest Theater with George Spaulding

The Film:  Can you judge a film based on only a half hour?  I suppose it’s easy to do.  Hell, lots of people judge films just on their endings.  But, with the ending, it’s the last thing you see, the thing you take away from the film and that stays with you.  Not necessarily so for the first half hour.  Maybe that can make all the difference.  Maybe, in spite of the Miramax marketing machine and the more Oscar-friendly release date, this is why Saving Private Ryan lost the Best Picture race to Shakespeare in Love.  Or maybe it’s why Shakespeare in Love is the (marginally) better film – because the ending really packs an emotional punch and the key to Saving Private Ryan is all in the first half hour, which, quite frankly, you’re glad if you can avoid thinking about it walking away from it.

Saving Private Ryan won five Oscars (and four Nighthawks in the same categories) and it basically won them all in the first half hour.  That gut-wrenching, pulse-binding storming of the beaches, where you get that great line (“I’ll see you on the beach”) and then it’s almost impossible to distinguish one line of dialogue from another does what was always said to be impossible.  It makes a true anti-war film.  It makes a film in which the experience is so absolutely terrifying, so real, that you can’t possibly imagine having to life through it.  With its direction, its cinematography, its sound, the effects (and a first-rate performance from Tom Hanks – Hanks won both his Oscars too early, for neither of his Oscar-winning performances are as good or as nuanced and subtle as his performances in later films like Saving Private Ryan or Road to Perdition), it is an experience unlike any other in film history.  It truly shows the horror of war.

But then the story has to kick in.  Because this isn’t just a re-living of D-Day.  We’d had that once already, a big epic of a film called The Longest Day that was nominated for Best Picture in 1962 and is unbelievably long and boring.  This never feels too long and never gets boring, but once it gets into the story it does take a few stumbles; stumbles, that while the film maintains some of the best direction of one of the finest directors in film history, keeps the film from reaching true classic status as so many of his other films have.  What does the film continue to do right?  It continues to make great use of Tom Hanks’ performance (his pulling his squad back from the brink of anarchy by asking “What’s the pool on me up to,” and the way he goes through with that scene might be his best moment on film), it makes us feel the insanity, and sometimes randomness of war, it makes us feel like we are living those terrifying moments the way the troops lived them.

But it also does things wrong.  It creates a squad that fits every 1940’s war film cliche.  It’s casting fills outside roles with strong performers (Matt Damon, Dennis Farina, Paul Giammati), but doesn’t make the best choices for the people in the squad itself – actors like Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi and Ed Burns, none of whom really have the acting chops to make things feel real.  But the biggest problem is the German soldier they come upon.  Coming upon him works well, and the way the squad argues about it afterwords seems very real.  But I kept saying to myself in the theater, he better not come back, because that makes this a pathetic cliche.  The chances of it are too slim and it would be a bad coincidence, beyond the level of Dickensian and distract from the overall story – the way the importance of one man can rise to the surface, that some mother back home in Iowa won’t lose all of her sons like the Sullivans did.  But it is undermined so badly when the German solider re-appears.  Then it just takes a scared soldier and makes him into more of a cartoon villain and that’s the last thing you want in a film like this.  In the end, it’s nowhere near enough to keep it out of the four star range.  But it is just enough to move it down to the middle of the range and enough for a smart, witty, charming film like Shakespeare in Love, which is just that little bit better, to land on top.

Ridiculousness in marketing - Clooney is barely in the film

The Thin Red Line

  • Director:  Terrence Malick
  • Writer:  Terrence Malick  (from the novel by James Jones)
  • Producer:  Robert Michael Geisler  /  John Roberdeau  /  Grant Hill
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published, Editing, Cinematography, Original Dramatic Score, Sound
  • Oscar Points:  230
  • Length:  170 min
  • Genre:  War  (World War II)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $36.40 mil  (#59  –  1998)
  • Release Date:  25 December 1998
  • Metacritic Score:  78
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #27  (year)  /  #259  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Cinematography, Sound, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  65
  • First Watched:  on video

The Film:  Perhaps The Thin Red Line is just a warm-up for Tree of Life.  Both films meander endlessly, doing away with almost anything that looks like plot or story and not bothering to delve particularly much into characters either.  That Tree of Life contains some very fine performances where Thin Red Line‘s performances blend into each other is more a function of the fewer characters in the former.  The Thin Red Line is a mystery, and not just one wrapped in an enigma, but crumpled up and stuffed into the heart of the enigma and then hidden away in Terrence Malick’s brain.  A perfect summation of this film is I’ve known people who list it as their favorite film of all-time and others who thought it was the most boring film they had ever seen.  It is the same things that make one person believe it is a work of brilliance that make another believe it is a piece of crap.

In some sense it comes down to a question of what film is.  Is film art?  If so, then what is the purpose of art?  Is art designed to entertain?  Would that not make it business rather than art?  The popularly accessible forms of art (film, music, literature) all struggle with this issue – the consumerism at stark odds with the artistry itself.  If film is art, does it have a requirement to entertain?  Absolutely not.  But do then, people have a requirement to endure it?  No.  It is as valid for Terrence Malick to struggle with philosophical questions in his art as it was for Dostoevsky or Dylan.  How then to judge the art?  Well, that it all depends on what you believe.  When people complain about my Top 100 Directors list, a common complaint is that art cannot be reduced to simple rated numbers.  But, once you have a star system for rating films, then we’re looking at Oscar Wilde’s conversation with the upper-crust woman who he offered first £1000 to sleep with, then £10; we’re just haggling over price because the concept has been established.  I use a rating system and I stand by it.

So how to rate The Thin Red Line?  Does it say more about the film or about me when I give it ***.5?  It perhaps says that I want more from my film than that it give me three hours of philosophical musings, wrapped in the blanket of the Battle of Guadalcanal.  It says that I believe that those who inhabit the film should be characters, not interchangeable parts.  The argument could be made that Malick is showing the face of war, how people get lost in the giant mass of bloodshed and misery.  But that’s so much more effectively shown in that first half hour of Saving Private Ryan, where we see how it’s all a giant mass of people doing what they can to stay alive in the insanity of it.  This seems too much like the graduate philosophy student trying to merge different forms of art and not quite making greatness out of either.

There is a sure hand of direction here and the acting is all fine, when we actually get to see them, rather than just listen to so many voiceovers that we lose track of who is speaking and why we should care.  There is also brilliant cinematography, beautiful shots of the island as it is attacked.  The sound, the music, the sights, all of these work extremely well.  But Malick the writer, in this case, seems to be asking too much of Malick the director.  True, in some ways this is what he would do again in Tree of Life, but in Tree of Life the smaller character size allows him to focus more and it results in a better film.  Here what we have is a three hour slog through the wilderness of war that strives for greatness but doesn’t ever seem to quite grasp it out of the air.

Elizabeth is full of actors you didn't know at the time

Elizabeth

  • Director:  Shekhar Kapur
  • Writer:  Michael Hirst
  • Producer:  Alison Owen  /  Eric Fellner  /  Tim Bevan
  • Studio:  Gramercy
  • Stars:  Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Fiennes
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Actress (Blanchett), Cinematography, Original Dramatic Score, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Oscar Points:  190
  • Length:  124 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Historical)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $30.08 mil  (#65  –  1998)
  • Release Date:  6 November 1998
  • Metacritic Score:  75
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #28  (year)  /  #280  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Blanchett), Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  140
  • First Watched:  opening day at the Century Eastport (Grand Opening of the Eastport) with Kelly Garrett

The Film:  Except for those of us who had seen Oscar and Lucinda, most people watching Elizabeth saw the man who had just won Best Actor a year and a half before (Geoffrey Rush) and a couple of distinguished British actors at the very end of their careers (Richard Attenborough, John Geilgud), surrounded by a cast of young, mostly unknown British actors.  Who could have looked at this cast and realized that in the next decade three of them would be in Best Picture winners (Joseph Fiennes, Cate Blanchett, Kelly MacDonald) and two of the villains would step into the most iconic British heroic roles since Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Eccleston and Daniel Craig).  It was a cast of mostly unknowns, who were actually filled with wonder.

And the proof of it is all there in the film.  If you had seen Oscar and Lucinda, then you knew that Cate Blanchett had great talent, but not talent like this.  She is the heart and soul of this film (she also is in the sequel, but more so because it is a much lesser film because her performance is not quite up to the standard set here).  This film isn’t really history, at least not history as we would learn from a book.  This is more like history learned from Shakespeare – a story about a bold and powerful leader and the historical forces that helped shape her from the hidden child hiding away from the world, into her father’s daughter, the most powerful person on the planet.

But, like some of the earlier, less polished Shakespeare plays, there is a tendency to get lost in all the characters (now you can get lost in all the people you recognize now that you didn’t back in 1998).  There are so many characters, most of them involved in trying to kill Elizabeth, or at least get her off the throne, that it’s difficult to keep track of all of them.  And this isn’t exactly Shakespeare when it comes to the dialogue – too many bold pronouncements and too much of what seems like the same thing happening over and over again.  It’s not a surprise in the slightest that Norfolk will do what he feels he has to in order to get her off the throne, both because she is (as he believes) a weak woman, and because she is a Protestant.  It’s a surprise that it takes so long to get to the point where Walshingham can finally have him wiped out.  And that’s even with the storyline somewhat simplified (it actually took years longer before Norfolk was executed in real life).  The film has a meandering script that never really comes to life.

But what the film also has is a sure hand of direction in Shekar Kapur.  It also has some amazing production values – absolutely amazing costumes, great cinematography, wonderful sets (sparse when they need to be, lusher for the more formal occasions – in a sense a mix of The Lion in Winter and Shakespeare in Love).  But most of all what it has is acting.  Everyone in the film is good, but all the male roles, unfortunately, get lost in the crowd.  Part of that is because this film is so much about how Elizabeth emerged from the shadows and become such a strong leader.  But most of all it is because of the performance of Cate Blanchett (who should have won the Oscar), seen only by small art crowds in Oscar and Lucinda, but here, announcing her presence to the world as one of its finest actresses.

Roberto Benigni's best film (by a long distance)

Life is Beautiful  (La vita è bella)

  • Director:  Roberto Benigni
  • Writer:  Roberto Benigni  /  Vincenzo Cerami
  • Producer:  Elda Ferri  /  Gianluigi Braschi
  • Studio:  Miramax
  • Stars:  Robert Benigni, Nicholetta Braschi
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (Benigni), Editing, Original Dramatic Score, Foreign Film
  • Oscar Points:  320
  • Length:  118 min
  • Genre:  Foreign  (Comedy)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $57.24 mil  (#35  –  1998)
  • Release Date:  23 October 1998
  • Metacritic Score:  59
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #36  (year)  /  #290  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Foreign Film
  • Nighthawk Points:  20
  • First Watched:  on video

The Film:  What to make of this film is the question.  What there is no question about is that it severely divides people.  My ranking him next to last in my all-time list of Oscar nominated directors has certainly gotten some feedback from those who absolutely love him.  But his film-making is the essential question there, and I think it’s awful.  But what about this film?  There is no question (at least to me) that it is his best film.  It has the surest sense of purpose, does not meander nearly as badly as his typical comedies and he even manages to reign himself in.  Is it because there is some serious subject matter in the background?  Well, for many, it is that serious subject matter that is exactly the problem.  That Benigni makes a game of the most horrible tragedy of the 20th Century is exactly what people can’t stand.  But what about the film itself?

The film is good.  It is not great, held away from greatness partially because of Benigni himself.  As a director, he’s never quite able to reign himself in as an actor (that the Academy gave him the Oscar for Best Foreign Film is not such a bad thing; that they gave him one for Best Actor is really pretty appalling).  During the early parts of the film that’s designed to bring on the grand comic romance of the story (if you didn’t know what the film was about, you might, a half hour into the film, believe it is a romantic comedy about how a clown wins the pretty lady in the town).  How much you enjoy the early part of the film depends on how much you can deal with Benigni when he is in his full form, mugging and acting ridiculous.  But he does charm her and this part of the film isn’t so much different than any of Benigni’s early films as a director.  But then they disappear into that house and their son emerges and it’s five years later and things have changed dramatically and here is where critics break down in their agreement with each other.

Does the fact that Benigni (and his character), someone who has nothing other than comedy to give to the world, uses comedy with his son to keep him sheltered from the reality going on around them make you cringe?  Or does it make you marvel at what a father will do in order to protect his son?  Here we have a very light version of what is happening across the rest of Europe.  For many, it was appalling that Benigni would bring comedy to a film dealing with the least humorous event of the modern era.  Yet, Benigni’s film isn’t really about the Holocaust at all.  It is about a father and son relationship, what they will do for each other, and the love that passes between them.  That is what draws people to the film.  Those who are drawn to its theme tend to favor it.  Those who think that the placement of the theme in the midst of the Holocaust are those who can not tolerate it.

Then there are those of us who are in between.  The film is well-made.  It is the best directing (by a long, long way) of Benigni’s career, it is his best and most reigned in performance.  It is fairly well written and certainly well made (the film’s score also won an Oscar and though I don’t agree it, it was not a bad choice).  I think it was a mistake to place it in the context in which it is placed – it seems to trade off the emotional value of the Holocaust without proving that it belongs there.  But my real problem with the film as a film is the ending – so insanely contrived and reaching so much for the happy ending that it possibly can (though at least I give credit to Benigni for not making his character survive).  The second time through I definitely felt like I should turn it off as soon as the camp is liberated.  Entertainment Weekly, rather accurately, notes that it starts out as sentimental whimsy and ends as sentimental kitsch.  The whimsy, for the most part, works.  The kitsch just makes me want to turn away.

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