American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Some people become clowns; others have clownhood thrust upon them. It is impossible to regard Roberto Benigni without imagining him as a boy in school, already a cutup, using humor to deflect criticism and confuse his enemies. He looks goofy and knows how he looks. I saw him once in a line at airport customs, subtly turning a roomful of tired and impatient travelers into an audience for a subtle pantomime in which he was the weariest and most put-upon. We had to smile.
"Life Is Beautiful" is the role he was born to play. The film falls into two parts. One is pure comedy. The other smiles through tears. Benigni, who also directed and co-wrote the movie, stars as Guido, a hotel waiter in Italy in the 1930s. Watching his adventures, we are reminded of Chaplin.
He arrives in town in a runaway car with failed brakes and is mistaken for a visiting dignitary. He falls in love instantly with the beautiful Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's real-life wife). He becomes the undeclared rival of her fiance, the Fascist town clerk. He makes friends with the German doctor (Horst Buchholz) who is a regular guest at the hotel and shares his love of riddles. And by the fantastic manipulation of carefully planned coincidences, he makes it appear that he is fated to replace the dour Fascist in Dora's life.
All of this early material, the first long act of the movie, is comedy--much of it silent comedy involving the fate of a much-traveled hat. Only well into the movie do we even learn the crucial information that Guido is Jewish. Dora, a gentile, quickly comes to love him, and in one scene even conspires to meet him on the floor under a banquet table; they kiss, and she whispers, "Take me away!" In the town, Guido survives by quick improvisation. Mistaken for a school inspector, he invents a quick lecture on Italian racial superiority, demonstrating the excellence of his big ears and superb navel.