Life Is Beautiful, and why we like movies and stories that make us cry

by julie swanson



My daughter has to take a language proficiency test in Italian so in her free time she’s been watching Italian movies. A couple days ago she called while halfway through Life Is Beautiful (with subtitles in English). She was loving it but had to interrupt her viewing of it to go somewhere and couldn’t wait to get back home where she could continue it on Netflix. She asked if I’d ever seen it and I said, yes, it’s a great movie–I loved it, too.

A while later she called back sniffly from crying and saying she’d just finished the movie and that she thought she just might watch it over and over again until she had to take her language proficiency test. She thought it was that good.

We talked about how odd it is that we would love a movie that makes us cry. While there are definitely parts of the movie that make you smile and are happy or lighthearted or at least uplifting, it is very sad. Which reminded me of my school visit the night before, my presentation to the Henley Middle School 7th graders, and their parents, who’d read my book Going for the Record. My book, based in large part on my dad’s death, is sad, too, and makes people cry. And what my daughter and I were discussing had come up with the Henley kids so I told her about it…

During the Q&A part of my presentation, a boy raised his hand and asked me which part of the book was the most fun to write. I smiled and hesitated and said something to the effect of, “I’m not sure if you want me to answer in terms of fun as in ‘I smiled and laughed and had a really good time writing it,’ or if you’d be OK with me telling you which part was my favorite part to write. Because a lot of the story is sad and I know it might sound weird to say that you enjoy being sad or crying, but I do enjoy stories that make me cry, so I enjoy writing things that make me or others cry, too. Not because I like to be a downer, but because I liked to be touched, I like to be moved, to feel things really strongly, to cry happy or sad tears, if it’s the right kind of sad. I like things that are meaningful and important.” I should’ve added that I don’t  have the talent of moving someone to tears with my humor, or I might do that more often instead!

Anyway, the boy seemed satisfied and nodded for me to go on, that he’d be fine hearing me tell what I most enjoyed, what was most meaningful for me to write. So I asked him to recall a scene where the dad is  going downhill and he’s out on the back porch standing with one leg up on a chair (because it’s not comfortable to sit) and he’s so tired that his eyes keep closing and he’s in danger of toppling over. The girl main character is beneath him on the porch steps, piping up to ask him a question whenever she’s sees he’s about to fall, to wake him up. The dad gets mad when he realizes what she’s doing, says he doesn’t need a babysitter, doesn’t need her watching after him, that she should run off and go have fun like kids are supposed to. The girl then says, “Yeah, but if I leave I’m worried you’re going to fall over and hurt yourself,” to which the dad answers sort of bitterly, “So what? Look at me, I’m useless. Maybe that’s exactly what I need to do, to fall over and hit my head and have this over with.” (I’m paraphrasing.) The girl starts crying and then the dad feels bad and softens and begins talking to her about how he’s ready to go. They have their first real talk about the fact that he is going to die and how much she’s going to miss him. He tells her things that make her realize that he’s at peace, he has faith, he’s not scared, that he is, in fact, looking forward to being reunited with his own dad in Heaven… The dad gets emotional and expresses his deepest feelings when he’s never been good at that. The whole scene is written almost exactly as it happened between my dad and me, so it’s very meaningful and something I really wanted to share. I cried writing it. I cried revising it. But it made me feel good! The whole very sad and intimate conversation made me feel good, made me feel love, showed me my dad’s bravery and courage and faith. I could tell he truly was at peace about dying, so I could be at peace about it, too. I could accept it and let him go where he wanted to go, where he wouldn’t be suffering anymore.

So here’s the thing about crying and why it can be something we enjoy: When you’re sad because someone dies or leaves, there is a happiness under that, because it’s all about how much you love that person. If there wasn’t this great underlying love–which is a very happy and warm and fuzzy and high-energy and ‘fun’ thing–then you wouldn’t be sad. Loss and separation make us realize what a great thing we had/have, and how lucky we were/are to have it. So in a sense, sadness is just the other side of the happiness/love coin. Sadness reminds us of love, of what’s most important.

Yes, there are other kinds of unhappy tears, like tears of anger after violence has been done to someone, or someone has been wronged. I don’t mean that I like those kind of tears, or anger. No. If my dad had been killed by someone who shot him, I would not get enjoy writing about that and feeling that anger over again or crying those tears. But in that same situation, in looking back at our life together and realizing how much I missed him because of how much we loved each other, if I cried then, or wrote about that, that is a happy kind of sadness. Those are a different kind of tears than the ones shed in anger.

The happy kind of sadness is what Life is Beautiful is (mostly) about.  Yes, it’s a holocaust movie, but it’s mostly about the love between a father and his little son.