LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL: Through The Lens Of Positive Psychology
In this part of Positive Psychology & Film, Laurie Agard interprets Life Is Beautiful, the inspiring and gut-wrenching Italian war film.
“No art passes our conscience the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.” — Ingmar Bergman
A Positive Psychology Film Review
When I’m in the mood to rewatch an old film, I almost always follow the advice of psychologists Ryan Niemiec and Danny Wedding and make my selection not so much by the film’s actors or plot, but rather by the virtues and character strengths found in the movie’s subplots. Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (La Vita È Bella, 1997) is a great film to revisit if you’re looking to engage in the virtue of wisdom and the character strength of creativity.
In the language of positive psychology, wisdom deals with strengths that involve the way we acquire and use knowledge. The VIA Institute of Character places creativity under the virtue of wisdom because strengths in the classification have cognitive aspects. For example: social intelligence, fairness, hope, and humor. Each of these aspects, particularly hope and humor, play intricate roles in Life is Beautiful, but it is Guido’s creativity that is most salient.
Many believe there are two essential components to creativity: originality and adaptiveness. People who have strong creative strengths often generate ideas or behaviors that are novel or unusual ways of doing things and these can be seen as making a positive contribution to not only their lives but often to the lives of others.
Creativity often takes different forms and Life is Beautiful is a wonderful example of this. The film begins on a light note showing Guido using his strength of creativity to win the heart of Dora. He impersonates a school inspector to impress her. He makes creative jokes that diminish fascist bullies. And like the Lone Ranger, he playfully and creatively whisks Dora away from her engagement party riding nothing other than a white horse covered in anti-Semitic insults.
Using his strength of creativity Guido eventually wins the heart of Dora. They marry and have a son. They open a bookstore. Life is beautiful.
But as positive psychologist Christopher Peterson lamented, “so many of the activities that make life most worth living involve others, and they do not always cooperate.” In this case, that’s a huge understatement because Guido’s bookstore “customers” are none other than the Nazis who are marching into town, and they certainly aren’t cooperating. What happens next morphs into the unspeakable world of death camps.
Positive psychologists also indicate that crises can reveal strengths of character. And in Life is Beautiful it is Guido’s creative strength of character that is put to the ultimate test. Not only must he shield his innocent son, Giosue, from the atrocities of the Holocaust, he must use creativity to save his son’s life.
When they arrive in a Nazi concentration camp, Guido calls upon his imagination to create an intricate and ever changing game to elude Giosue. Guido must make Giosue believe that they are fortunate contestants, free to leave at any time. He convinces his son they are not prisoners, but rather they are actively choosing to participate in the most fantastic game ever created.
Amid obvious signs of starvation, sickness, misery, yelling, and fear, Guido must come up with creative and playful solutions that make Giosue believe that everyone else in the camp is playing this amazing game with them. Guido convinces his son that he is hopeful the two could be victorious, but in order to win the grand prize, a giant tank, father and son must first score one thousand points.
Guido creatively translates a Nazi soldier’s frightening rant to Giosue, “The game starts now. You have to score one thousand points. If you do that, you take home a tank with a big gun. Each day we will announce the scores from that loudspeaker. The one who has the fewest points will have to wear a sign that says ‘Jackass’ on his back. There are three ways to lose points. One, turning into a big cry baby. Two, telling us you want to see your mommy. Three, saying you’re hungry and want something to eat.”
As the film progresses the obstacles intensify and put Guido’s creativity to the test. When Giosue wants to play with other kids, instead of telling him the other children are being killed, he tells them they are hiding to score points. Instead of complaining about the backbreaking manual labor he is required to do, he happily tells him the work is earning them points.
When positive psychologists began classifying strengths and virtues they had to pass rigorous criteria, which, among other things, required that it does not diminish others but rather “elevates others who witness it, producing admiration, not jealousy.” Guido’s humor does not trivialize the horrors of the Holocaust, but rather it exalts the lengths to which parents will go to protect their child.
In the end Guido succeeds and saves his son’s life by using his creativity. In the ultimate character strength test, just as Guido is lead off to be executed he must creatively come up with a new twist to the game and convince young Giosue to hide silently and alone in a sweatbox all night and until morning. If he succeeds, he tells him, they will win the tank. The next morning, American soldiers free the camp and Giosue not only lives, he feels invigorated, successful, and fulfilled.
Using film to explore and elicit deeper engagement with life and with my own virtues and strengths has proven to be a fresh way to not only watch a movie but to relate it back to my own emotions, actions, and attitudes.
I find applying positive psychology to movies helps me see more of the possibilities in film and in life. What do you think?
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