I’m kind of a sap when it comes to movies that make you cry. And when it involves the complexities and hardships of the father-son relationship, count me as human waterfall. But I see it as a blessing that even as a veteran filmmaker — intimately aware of the craft behind the illusions — I can still be moved by the power of story embodied by skilled actors on the screen. By some miracle, I’m not jaded.
There’s something incredibly powerful about the medium when all the pieces come together just right. In the right hands, the writing, performances, visuals and music can add up to something much greater than the sum of these parts.
But in the wrong hands, the elements of the medium can clash in a desperate cacophony, insistent on its emotional poignancy by sheer force of will and exorbitant expense. At GCU, we’re striving to create filmmakers who avoid the latter. And part of that training involves studying the films that just plain work on an emotional level.
The Emotional Power of Film
It’s hard to identify a movie that will make you cry and that captures the extreme poles of the human spirit in as powerful a way as 1997’s “La vita è bella” (Life Is Beautiful) movie from Italian director and actor Roberto Benigni. I’ve never identified a film that serves as a better litmus test for one’s beating heart. Simply, if you have a pulse, you will be moved to tears.
But there are countless movies that will make you cry. Tears can be earned from similarity-themed modern classics like “Schindler’s List” (1993) or “The Pianist” (2003), but I’ve yet to experience the same mix of emotions that the movie "Life Is Beautiful" seems to elicit so effortlessly. In fact, the emotional climax is such a specific cocktail that words can’t do it justice. Am I crying because I’m so sad, so elated, or both in equal measure? Or perhaps I’m crying because the sadness and the joy are both so beautiful. Could it be that such an on-the-nose title actually points to something profound for a change? Quite possibly.
That’s often a tell-tale sign of a movie masterpiece; words fail where image, performance and every storytelling power that filmmaking possesses take over to create an unforgettable experience. The emotional power of “Life Is Beautiful” movie would be vastly diminished if it were merely a novel. The medium must be film.
Life Is Beautiful Movie: An Overview
Roberto Benigni plays the starry-eyed Italian-Jew Guido in pre-World War II Italy. He’s a romantic, an optimist, a jokester and a troublemaker just on the right side of acceptability. He falls madly in love with an Italian woman named Dora who literally falls into his arms, and the first half of the film is dedicated to his comical and endearing pursuit of her heart. But it’s not just the love story itself that works its charms on the viewer, its Benigni’s love letter to the screwball comedy of Hollywood’s golden age that is a welcome surprise. There are ridiculous sight gags, absurd hijinks and impossible coincidences; and many of them are laugh-out-loud funny.
However, at the same time Benigni is disarming you with humor and sweetness, the context of the story is steadily shifting. Nazi ideology is steadily overtaking Italy; and so is Nazi occupation. Jews are being identified, discriminated against, and finally being herded onto trains. Guido has married Dora and they has have a young son Giosuè by the time the Nazis come for him. He and his half-Jewish son are swiftly taken; his full Italian wife is not. But in an unforgettably heroic measure of love and solidarity, Dora demands that the Nazis take her too. They oblige. Though she hopes to be reunited with her family, the concentration camp’s strict separation of the sexes makes that impossible.
Meanwhile, Guido tries his best to shield Giosuè from the truth of what’s happening. This is where the “Life Is Beautiful” movie simply enters into a thematic league of its own. Guido maintains a joyful front for his son and concocts an imaginary game that explains to Giosuè all the unusual and scary things happening around him. In the midst of unspeakable suffering and fear, Guido takes on more labor — a labor of love to preserve his young son’s innocence. Giosuè believes the game is real, wants to win, and finds reserves of energy necessary to his survival because of the exciting illusion Guido painstakingly maintains. The film’s climax is one of the most unforgettable images of love in action that has ever been created.
I was fifteen years old when I first saw the film in the theater with my dad. And when I revisited the film 24 years later, that indelible image was exactly as I remember it. No moment in any film I’ve seen since has made that kind of mark on me.
It’s almost a tragedy that star Roberto Benigni’s effervescent joy and gratitude upon winning Best Actor at the 1999 academy awards seems to have overshadowed the film itself in our cultural consciousness. Although witnessing such childlike enthusiasm and whimsy only serves to make the case that throwing Benigni in the lead might have been the greatest casting choice of all time. He simply is the character — gently placed into a different time and setting.
Movies That Will Make You Cry: A Film Legacy
There have been many instances of the Oscar’s lavishing praise on a film that ultimately didn’t stand the test of time. But the movie “Life Is Beautiful” is no such film — winning Best Actor, Best Dramatic Score and Best Foreign Film (it was also nominated for directing, screenplay, editing and Best Picture). Critics and audiences both raved about it upon release, and IMDb users currently have it ranked as the 25th best film of all time.1
This movie that will make you cry is a uniting force — tapping into something so elemental in the human experience that it’s easy to forget that the original Italian version with subtitles is the way most people saw it on the way to a $230 million global box office run.2 Was this financial success simply a matter of releasing the right kind of film at the right time for the market, or is there something more basic in its appeal?
In GCU’s digital film program, we teach that a good story can cross cultural barriers; and we are cultivating the next generation of accomplished international storytellers in the world greatest medium.
1IMDb, Top 250 Movies, in December 2022
2IMDb, Life is Beautiful, in December 2022
Approved by Ryan O'Connell on Dec. 14, 2022.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.