In Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning film La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful), the main protagonist Guido always seems to know how to add excitement and comedy to life. Even when faced with tragedy, specifically in the context of the film’s setting during Holocaust, Guido never fails to put a smile on others’ faces and to remind those of life’s simplest pleasures.
A comedic-tragedy, as many critics like to call it, La Vita è Bella tells the story of a Jewish Italian named Guido Orefice and his hilarious attempts to win the heart of the upper-class Dora. This chase for love dominates the first half of the film before switching to a more serious, somber tone. After marrying Dora and starting a family, Guido is transported to a Nazi concentration camp along with his young, naïve son Giosuè. Amidst the horrors and the harsh realities of the camp, Guido remains as bubbly and optimistic as ever to keep his son’s spirits and hopes alive.
The brilliance of La Vita è Bella is its ability to successfully pull at the heartstrings of spectators, making them both laugh and cry. Despite its serious setting and an ending that emphasizes the Holocaust’s tragedy, Benigni’s film also serves to remind all to appreciate life’s moments and revel in the beauty of everyday miracles. One such example during the film involves a key and shout. On multiple occasions in the movie, Guido watches as a man stands under a window and shouts, “Maria, la chiave!” Seconds later a key flies from the window and into the man’s grasp. While the episodes do little to advance the plot, their inclusion emphasizes life’s spontaneity and surprise.
The message from the scene with the key in Roberto Benigni’s film summarizes one of the best lessons I have learned while abroad. As I write this, I have a little more than thirty-six hours left in Italy, therefore in between studying for finals and feeling anxious, I have reflected a great deal about all I have done during my overseas stay. In my four months abroad, it seems that not a day has gone by without something amazing me. Though I have traveled extensively during this semester and done so much, some of the best memories I have are like those of a key falling from the sky, unexpected yet magical.
One of the most vivid memories I have comes from more than a month ago when boarding a train headed to Venice for Carnivale weekend. As I stepped into the train car I heard the utterance of a quiet, “scusi,” and then turned to find an older woman with a heavy suitcase. “Aiutarmi?” she asked, signaling with her hands for help. “Certo,” certainly, I replied and then proceeded to help lift her bag into the train car. Once inside, she turned to me with such a vivid smile and said, “Grazie mille. Sei molto gentile; grazie, grazie!” All I had done was act as a good Samaritan, yet this woman graciously thanked me as if I had just saved her life. It reminded me of those days when I was younger and I used to help my great-grandmother in the kitchen. Though she would not say thank you, my grandma would oftentimes pinch my cheeks in thanks. I half expected this older woman to do the same, but (perhaps fortunately) she did not. Even so, her smile was all I needed to feel warm and tender-hearted. It had been such a simple act, but the fact that I had done it while also successfully communicating in Italian put a wide grin on my face for the entire train ride.
On another memorable occasion I remember standing outside my Italian house waiting for the bus into Florence when suddenly a stranger approached me. In Italian, the man asked me how to find a specific street. Although I was not sure exactly, I did my best to guide him in the right in the right direction. Having been so used to being the one asking for directions, this moment symbolized the time when I officially stopped feeling like a tourist and I felt like an Italian.
Then just this morning I walked into a local bar that I had visited days before when the woman at the bar recognized my face. “Un cappuccino?” she asked. Amazed that she not only recognized me but also remembered my order, I smiled widely and graciously nodded. I had seen it before in a number of other cafés where a customer would walk in, the barman would shout his/her name, and then an instant later a steaming cup of espresso would be resting on the counter. Even if the woman did not know my name, it felt like a start; four months later, finally I became a “regular.”
Even simple walks home from the Villa spurred my excitement. When walking home one afternoon, I passed by another gated villa that I had seen countless times before. This one particular day, however, I stopped and noticed that just outside the gate, on an indented shelf in the wall, sat a key. I felt like shouting “Maria, la chiave!” And yet there it was, as if anyone was free to put the key in the gate in and stumble around the villa grounds. Who knew how long it had been there before I had seen it? It was only after I had stopped to look and appreciate the building villa’s façade that I actually observed the key. Ever since that day I first found the key I have checked to see if it is waiting. And always to my surprise, it is.
So as I rush to finish last-minute shopping and procrastinate packing, I am spending my last few days in Italy thinking about all these little surprises. Considering that they have become an everyday occurrence, one might expect that I would no longer be surprised. Yet, with each passing day of the semester, whether in Athens, Brussels, Florence, or Paris, there was always an instant of spontaneity, drama, or unexpectedness. I am appreciative for all of these moments. And so while my final days abroad seem like Roberto Benigni’s film, loving and bittersweet, full of smiles and full of tears, I am continually reminded that life is really beautiful.