Conjuring keys and hats out of thin air, Guido (Roberto Benigni), a clever Jewish-Italian waiter, successfully courts Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), a beautiful local woman, in Fascist pre-WWII Italy. His life, however, is turned upside down a few years later when he, Dora, and their young son, Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini), are sent to a Nazi concentration camp. Refusing to give up hope, Guido tries to protect his son's innocence by pretending that their imprisonment is just an elaborate game, with the grand prize being a tank.
For years the box-office champ in Italy and the country's most beloved slapstick comic, the Chaplinesque Benigni took a huge risk with LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL. Many people worried that the film would be as offensive as plopping a cartoon character in Auschwitz. (A similar work--THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED, a Jerry Lewis film about a comedian in a concentration camp--turned out to be a disaster two decades earlier.) Although LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL did provoke some controversy, many people found the film to be a poignant, tragicomic story that profoundly reaffirmed the humanity of concentration camp victims. The film became the highest grossing foreign language film in the U.S. and established Benigni as an international star.