A Tale of Two Movies

A Tale of Two Movies

Over the past two nights, my husband and I have watched two movies: Life is Beautiful, a 1997 film directed by Robert Benigni (unless you speak Italian, you'll want the version with English subtitles), and The Hours, a 2002 film directed by Stephen Daldry. In watching them one after another, the contrast jumped out, I believe with an important life lesson.

Life is Beautiful
 is the story of Guido, a Jewish man in 1930s Italy with a wonderful imagination and sense of fun. In the first part of the movie, he meets and marries Dora, the woman of his dreams, and a Christian. Soon they have a son, Giosué. On Giosué's fifth birthday, he and Guido are taken by the Nazis. Dora marches to the train station and insists on getting on the train onto which they are herded. The entire family ends up in a concentration camp.

The Hours tells the story of a single day in the lives of three women connected by the novel Mrs. Dalloway: Virginia Woolf, the author, in a beautiful country home in1923 with a husband who loves her; Laura Brown living the American dream in 1951 with her son Richie and adoring husband Dan; and Clarissa Vaughn, an editor in New York in 2001, living with her girlfriend of ten years, caring for her former boyfriend Richard who has AIDS, on the day she's planning a party to celebrate Richard being awarded a prestigious literary prize that evening. 

Who might you expect to be happier? Those in Life is Beautiful or those in The Hours? Which movie might be the more uplifting to watch?

You might be surprised. The glaring contradiction in watching them back to back is that it is Guido, Dora, and Giosué who are arguably happier. Guido spends the months in the concentration camp using his wit and humor to protect his son from the brutality of their situation by convincing the boy this is a fantastic game, the grand prize being Giosué's favorite thing in the world: a tank. A real tank. The first person to get a thousand points wins a real tank.

No matter how bad his own life is, he returns from forced labor each day telling Giosué what a fantastic day it's been, how many points they're earning, and that they're in the lead.

He concocts ways to let his wife, in the women's section, know that he and Giosué are still okay. He tells Giosué the rules of the game: staying hidden from the guards (who Guido says are part of the game) earns points; asking for food will cost points. While Giosué first doubts his father, as he hears stories of horror from others, Guido convinces him that's part of the game; that these people are just trying to fool him and discourage him so that he and his father lose. By the end, Giosué is convinced and eagerly plays along to win the tank.

Guido's last act, as the Americans liberate the prisoners, is to convince Giosué to hide from the rampaging guards and their dogs in a box--all part of the game--thus saving his son's life. When he emerges, Giosué is pulled up onto a tank by an American soldier, and from there, sees his mother and is re-united with her.

The Hours, despite the lives each of the women is living, is full of unhappy people. Virginia Woolf is miserable, despite living in a beautiful home in a beautiful country setting, with servants to meet her every need, a husband who adores her, and her success as an accomplished and respected author. She sees none of this, but only regards her life as stifling, feels she's watched too closely by her servants and husband, and sees herself in the eyes of a dead bird she finds with her niece. We know, of course, that she ends up committing suicide.

Laura Brown, pregnant with her second child, is likewise miserable. She finds her idyllic life empty. Even after learning that her neighbor cannot conceive children, she doesn't stop to consider that she has a gift in her children that others desperately want and do not have. She takes her copy of Mrs. Dalloway to a hotel where she plans to commit suicide but changes her mind. 

We never do find out why she's so unhappy or what it is she wants from life, apart from the hint that she gives a deep (and unwelcome) kiss to the neighbor who has stopped by to ask for help during her upcoming hospital stay. What we do learn is that after the birth of her daughter, she abandons her husband and children and in 2001, on learning that her son, Richard--now a celebrated poet--has committed suicide, and being told how her abandonment affected him, defends her choice with the excuse that her life was just so terrible. (In what way, she doesn't say.) She makes no apologies, even in the face of her son's suicide and the evidence of what her abandonment did to him. It is all about her.

Clarissa, likewise, never really seems happy. She at least can point to someone she loves being terminally ill. She does take care of Richard, but even that seems an act more for herself, perhaps, than for him.

Richard, though he has a just complaint in his mother having abandoned him as a child, regardless goes on to think of himself first, just as his mother did. Even in death, he fails to think of others or how his actions might impact them, as he deliberately commits suicide in front of Clarissa by way of rolling out an open window.

While a movie about a father and son in a concentration camp is hardly cheerful matter, it was an uplifting movie about people in the worst of circumstances who still determine to do the very best with what they've got, to live with nobility, goodness, and character, giving to others; to come in smiling every day for the sake of another.

It is the story of a man who, in the face of anti-Semitism even before he's taken away, laughs at life and chooses happiness. Guido is a man who, no matter how he's feeling, does everything in his power to protect his son, not only physically, but emotionally and mentally, from the horror around him. He spends his time in the concentration camp focused on his son and wife, not on his own pain as he's made to work laboriously for hours each day. He lives for a purpose bigger than himself and in setting his eyes on that purpose, doesn't ponder his own happiness or unhappiness.

It is the story of a woman who sets aside her own well-being and deliberately walks into a concentration camp to stay as close as possible to her son and husband. She thinks, through the movie, not of herself, but of them.

These are people, Dora and Giosué, who we can believe will go on to live reasonably happy lives, despite this horror they've endured, because they will remember Guido's selflessness in doing what he could for them. They have experienced the ultimate in being shown how valued and loved they are by his selfless behavior. They will follow his example of seeing a picture bigger than their own feelings of the moment. 

The Hours, by contrast, is a story of three women entirely focused on themselves, on their feelings, on whether life is what they want it to be. They are navel-gazers who think little to nothing of anyone but themselves. They have no grander purpose in life other than their own happiness, pleasure, and feelings. And ironically, they are unhappy.

I see in this a powerful truth: The more we think about ourselves and our own happiness, the less happy we are likely to be. It is in living with selflessness, for a purpose bigger than ourselves, and thinking about the happiness of others, that we find our own happiness.

See my newest release....

...there was a boy named Jacob who lived in a world of knights and dragons—when he wasn’t going to first grade, learning manners and waltzes, and eating steak tartare.

While his parents’ careers keep them occupied, he befriends the large and rambunctious family next door and explores his new home—the Summit Hill mansion of a 19th century railroad baron. Jacob is used to battling dragons. But even he is surprised to discover a man living in the walls in his basement! Anthony says he is a monk living in the medieval anchorite tradition, sealed in a cell for life to pray, hoping to become a saint.

Mama does not like his friendship with the kids next door. And she doesn’t believe there’s a saint in the cellar. But then, she doesn’t believe in dragons or King Methred, either.

What if she’s wrong….?

In addition to The Saint in the Cellar, please look for my other recent releases:


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