The film opens with an atmospheric shot of a silhouetted figure wandering through dense dust and debris. "This is a simple story," the narrator says, "but not an easy one to tell. Like a fable, there is sorrow, and like a fable, it is full of wonder and happiness." The shot then brightens, and we see a simple country road. It is 1939, and we are in Abrezzo, Italy. Two men drive along in a car, and the driver animatedly recites a poem to his friend. Finally, he yells out, "the brakes are gone!" The passenger thinks it is merely another line in the poem, but the driver declares, "No, they're really gone! The brakes are gone!" The car barrels down the road, through the woods, and into a parade, where the passengers' desperate arm movements to the waiting crowd appear to be "Heil Hitler" gestures. The crowd eagerly responds, raising their right arms in kind. When the army official who was actually supposed to be honored in the parade passes the crowd, everyone falls silent in confusion.
The driver, Ferruccio, attempts to fix the car with little success. Finally, he tells our hero, Guido Orefice, to go for a walk, or they will be there forever. Guido says that he will go wash his hands, and he heads towards a little farmhouse. There, he sees a little girl and inquires about the items that she has piled onto a cart, telling her that her display is lovely. He introduces himself as a prince and tells her that everything around her belongs to him. He says that he is going to call the place Addis Ababa--and he will replace the cows with camels. Guido then announces that he is off to meet with his princess. At that moment there is a ruckus, and a woman falls out of a window, directly onto Guido and a pile of hay. "Good morning, princess!" Guido says, grinning. The woman says that she has been stung by a wasp, and Guido begins sucking the venom out of her leg. The little girl, Elenora, tells the woman that Guido is a prince, and the woman offers him some eggs in thanks. Taking half a dozen eggs, Guido makes his exit.
Next, it is night, and Ferruccio and Guido are approaching a grand old house. As they walk to the front door, there is a loud crash, and two men run out. Inside, Guido's uncle Eliseo is on the floor. He says that the men were "barbarians" and that he did not cry out for help because "silence is the most powerful cry." Ferruccio introduces himself as a poet and upholsterer, and Eliseo says that they are welcome to stay in the house, which has been converted into a storage facility. Eliseo also says that Guido can work as a waiter at the hotel where he is employed. Eliseo walks around the room, pointing out the oddities contained there, and then leaves. His horse, Robin Hood, whinnies in greeting.
The next day, Guido and Ferruccio walk through the piazza, visibly excited about their new life. They pass a man standing on the sidewalk, who calls out, "Maria! The key!" An unseen woman tosses a key out of a window, very nearly missing Guido and Ferruccio. They then go to meet Oreste, who is employing Ferruccio as an upholsterer. Guido compliments Oreste on his hat, attempting to switch it for his own. Guido asks Oreste what his political views are, but Oreste does not hear him; Oreste is too busy chastizing his boys, Benito and Adolfo. Guido quickly excuses himself, but not before switching the hats once again. Oreste declares that he will get his revenge.
Guido argues with a woman about his application to open a bookshop. She tells him that the department head, Amico Rodolfo, has to sign the loan, but when Amico walks thorugh the room he refuses to do so since his substitute, he says, will be there in an hour. Guido is irritated; all Amico had to do was give him a signature, and now he has to wait an hour! In his frustration, he knocks a flowerpot off of the windowsill, and it hits Amico on the head as he passes below. Guido runs down to help him, but Amico says that Guido will never get his loan now. He takes a hat from Guido and jams it onto his head, but Guido flinches--earlier, he had put the six eggs into the hat, and they are now shattered all over Amico. "I'll kill you!" he screams, and Guido jumps onto his bike to make an escape.
Guido bicycles frantically through the piazza, trying to navigate around a group of schoolchildren. Suddenly he collides with a woman--the woman from the farm. "Good morning, princess!" he says. "I wonder if we'll ever bump into each other standing up!" He bids her farewell and runs off, leaving her standing in the piazza, watching him go with a slight smile on her face.
The moody, evocative opening of the film, with a shadowy character struggling through dense fog, provides a sharp contrast to the cheerful, boisterous scene that follows, which depicts Guido and Ferruccio barreling down a country road in an open-air car. Indeed, the first scene is so at odds with the entire first half of the film that viewers may forget about it entirely until the horrors of the second half begin. Yet, the first scene alerts us to the true complexity of Life is Beautiful: this is a lighthearted comedy, for certain, but it has a dark side that must be reckoned with.
Indeed, an attentive viewer will catch glimpses of the darker side of the film throughout the first half, hidden though they may be by Benigni's brilliant comedic talents. Before the credits even begin, the audience is alerted to the pervasive prevalence of fascism: when Guido, trapped in the runaway car, frantically gestures to the crowd to move out of the way, they interpret his wild flailings as a fascist salute and eagerly respond in kind. Later, Guido asks Oreste what his political views are, and he receives enough of an answer when Oreste chastizes his two children, calling them Benito and Adolfo. Guido's trouble with Amico seems to have an anti-Semitic reason. And even though Life is Beautiful is not an overtly political film--politics are only directly discussed a handful of times--Benigni's political inclinations are quite clear from the outset.
The first few scenes of the film not only introduce several major characters (including Guido, Dora, Ferruccio, Eliseo, Oreste, and Amico), but they also incorporate additional elements that return later in the tale. For example, Dora's gift to Guido of half a dozen eggs later incites Amico's anger, and Guido's and Ferrucio's discovery of the man who daily cries out, "Maria! The key!" will prove instrumental later in the development of Guido's and Dora's romance.
Furthermore, Eliseo's explanation of why he did not cry out when he was being attacked, "Silence is the most powerful cry," informs the second half of the film. While Guido is not "silent" in his attempts to combat the fascists who entrap him and his family in the second half of the film (consider his later use of the loudspeaker), he is politically silent, focusing instead on laughter and on the joy of human experience.
Right away, the audience realizes that they are dealing with a truly unique individual. Guido himself is a masterful storyteller, able to manipulate his surroundings so that they make his fanciful tales come to life. (Consider Benigni himself in this regard.) When Guido meets the young Elenora at the farm, he takes pleasure in bringing a smile to the child's face by telling her that he is a prince and that he plans to bring in camels to replace the cows. "No!" she cries. "Camels?!" When Dora, the woman who is to become his wife, seemingly falls out of the sky and into his arms, Guido immediately figures out a way to work this development into his story: "Good morning, princess!" he says, thereby lending credence to his tale.
Thus, Life is Beautiful is an almost magical tale. Situations arise that seem so coincidental as to have been directed by a supernatural force, but Benigni is very careful to convey that each seemingly extraordinary occurrence has its natural causes-even if the coincidence is orchestrated by the hand of an extraordinary man or some larger fate. Magic, Benigni suggests, comes primarily from human agency-if only one is willing to see the vast possibilities that life offers.