Roberto Benigni, Italian artist of unique charisma, will be turning 59 next week (born October 27th, 1952). In his home country, he is the unapologetic king of slapstick comedy, who is exceedingly vocal and even unapologetic about his opinions. More than a comedian, Benigni is a film-maker, a successful and respected poet and singer-songwriter.
Beyond Italy, Benigni’s work has reached many of us only through film. Not being the unavoidable presence he is at the Italic Peninsula, Benigni has been a largely misinterpreted figure overseas. As Italians themselves would tell you (I’m half Italian by the way), the films Benigni makes are but a natural expression of a culture that loves to think of itself as epically romantic, humorous and victorious in the face of adversity. His personality, at least the one he allows the public to see, seems to be an extension of the characters he embodies so vividly in the movies he writes and directs. These can’t be dissected fairly if we don’t try to understand the roots of the content, because Benigni, like most of us, is inexorably informed by the environment and culture that surrounds him, making his films folkloric examples of Italian culture framed within Hollywoodesque traditions.
For the vast majority of us, Benigni is a one-hit-wonder in Hollywood, often related to his famous, not to say infamous display at the Academy Awards of 1998 when, after winning the Best Foreign Language Film award for “Life is Beautiful”, he abruptly decided to literally skip to the stage, standing on the back of the seats in front of him, always in the verge of falling on the shocked Hollywood elite bellow him. The reaction in the media that day and afterwards was palpable, no one in the history of the awards had seen such a unique reaction. To many it was an incredibly honest moment of joy, that was typically Italian in nature; while others thought of it simply as a distasteful and egocentric display of a film-maker that was not used to the attention he received that year.
Sadly, his accomplishment with “Life is Beautiful” was partly overshadowed by his sometimes off-putting over-the-top antics that has as many admirers as it has detractors. Benigni is as egotistic a man dedicated to his art is supposed to be, always seeking for an audience to view and appreciate the work he produces, not only in film, but also in writing. However, Benigni is perhaps at fault in that he let a great moment get to his head, leaving with us the image of his acrobatics rather than the power of emotion that emanated from the scenes of “Life is Beautiful”. To his credit, Benigni did not antagonize anyone once he got to the podium, all the contrary, he showed delight and even modesty in that such an attempt at film-making would get such a coveted recognition.
Benigni, in 1998, became the subject of coffee breaks in America, he had invaded our lives first through his film, and secondly through his unique personality but sadly what remained was the almost ridiculous image of a goof clumsily hovering unsuspecting seated neighbors. That year was a year of firsts too for the Academy. Benigni had not only captured the Golden Statuette for Best Foreign Film, but also for the score and as best actor in a leading role, the first male or female to ever win the prize as part of a non-english speaking motion picture.
Critics were never kind to Benigni. The reception “Life is Beautiful” received was, at best, lukewarm. Some loved it, some liked it, a few were ambivalent, but a good portion of the professional response was in clear opposition to the accomplishments of the film, a position that only got more severe when his work was awash with awards at the 1998 televised ceremony. The Oscars always produce a reactionary response from critics and mass audiences alike, and the opinion on the 1998 awards was especially divisive among movie buffs.
What I believe is that Benigni produced a rare gem, one that is infused with an emotional depth that was delicately woven in a wildly original script that grasped the horror of World War II in an entirely different light. For Benigni it was an opportunity to make use of his natural comedic talents immersed in a dramatic setting inspired by the many stories Luigi Benigni, his father, had told him about his unfortunate times at a concentration camp between 1943 and 1945. It was perhaps with this vital piece of information that I begun to understand why the film feels so efortless, as if Benigni was born for the film and the film was waiting for him to make it a reality.
It is rare when a movie is so connected to one person. Benigni conceived the project at every level, writing the story, directing and performing the lead role, one in which he made complete use of his Italian gifts as an epic funny-man and hopeless romantic. Benigni, as the film critic Manohla Dargis wrote in the New York Times, “creates a situation in which comedy is courage”.
To appreciate “Life is Beautiful” is to believe in the power of love, in the power of comedy and in the capacity that some films, those are truly unique and extremely rare have in pulling the strings of emotion ever so lightly until there is nothing else to do but cry hopelessly.
Benigni must be understood in the Italian context, knowing that “Life is Beautiful” and the also accomplished “Tiger and the Snow” (released in 2005), are extensions of the culture, where comedy, tragedy and romance are linked in a manner that remains epic and lasting in our hearts, while it is unpretentious and enormously simple in practice.
Benigni could make twenty more terrible films before he dies (one of which is the live-action Italian remake of “Pinocchio” by the way), but he will remain, in my view, a true artist who, despite his oversized personality, was able to craft magnificent pieces of film.