The truth about Roberto Benigni (hint: he might be a genius)

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.

Niels

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5 thoughts on “The truth about Roberto Benigni (hint: he might be a genius)

  1. This is absolutely wonderful. Thank you for writing such a wonderful post. I find it really upsetting that the western world doesn’t appreciate him as much as they should.

    Although I don’t agree with you saying at times he was over the top with his persona. Being seen as a happy exuberant person isn’t a bad thing. I love that he’s that person. I would much rather be entertained by someone who is happy than someone who is sad. If people do remember him for something I do hope they remember him for his happy nature.

    But….in saying that like you’ve said above he is also a wonderful writer, poet and sing-songwritter. His love for Dante’s poetry (which he toured for 5 years) and his own poetry is remarkable. In 2007 he was nominated for a Nobel Prize. I’m sure most people around the world aren’t even aware of that. He has a very serious side which is beautiful also. I do wish that overseas people would see this also.

    I’ve had the immense pleasure of meeting him and speaking with him this year and he was so kind and lovely and everything you would imagine. He and his wife Nicoletta Braschi are THE most famous people in Italy. I had come from Australia to see Nicoletta in a play (The Italian version of Harold Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’). And just because I MET them I had journalists searching for me all over Italy and they eventually found me and interviewed me about my experience (http://www.nicolettabraschifans.com/?p=504 you can read about it here). That shows how popular they both still are.

    Benigni has just filmed his first film in 8 years and one of the few films he’s staring in without directing. (Woody Allen has directed the film titled ‘Nero Fiddled’) It’s a chance for audiences other than the Italians to be re-introduced to his incredible talent.

    Also with Pinocchio, I disagree with you. It wasn’t that bad. It was publicised badly. In Italy it is a law in schools to study Pinocchio to teach children about the importance of being honest and being good. The real version that Carlo Collodi wrote was much different to the popular Disney version. Benigni stayed true to Collodi’s work and unfortunately too many people saw the Disney version as the true version. Maybe in some peoples eyes Benigni shouldn’t have played Pinocchio….but Benigni IS Pinocchio. If you look into ALL of his past work there is an element of Pinocchio in everything he has ever done. Fellini always wanted Benigni to do the film which I think was a big part of why he cast himself. Pinocchio was a HUGE success over Europe. I think what they did with the American version was terrible. That dubbing was a disgrace and if that has hurt his career overseas well thats just not cool.

    But I think your post is absolutely lovely. You have made some wonderful, valid points. I’m glad to see that people appreciate Benigni for what he truly is. A WONDERFUL artist. I run his wife’s website http://www.nicolettabraschi.com and I just opened a site for him http://www.robertobenignifans.com If you ever have the time please check them out. I am always so happy when I find a fan around.

    Thanks again for the great post,

    Megan :-)

    1. I appreciate the words and I am glad to have been found by a fan of Benigni and his wife.
      I have been in love with Benigni the film-maker for a while now, ever since my eyes witnessed the success of “Tiger and the Snow” that built upon the absolute greatness of “Life is Beautiful”.
      I only had the opportunity to acquaint myself with the rest of his art rather recently and only superficially, although I have been hearing, for years, how much of an all-around artist he is.
      I must stand my ground when it comes to Pinocchio though. I probably did not feel, when I watched it, that it was a total failure, as might have come across in my post, but I do think it was still a misstep in his career. Your argument about people expecting a different story based on the Disney remake of the original is not accurate in my case because I always welcome directors and/or writers who take a step back in order to reintroduce a story that has been forever changed by the machine that is Disney.

      I would like to know more about Benigni’s future work and how the experience was when you met him, it must have been quite a delight.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Niels

      1. Hi again Niels,

        I’m not sure how but I’ve only just received the notification for your reply, 4 months later haha.

        Look I completely understand were you are coming from re Pinocchio. I just hate that so often people write such horrible things about Roberto regarding Pinocchio. You didn’t however write anything nasty. I just am very defensive.

        Roberto will be starring in ‘Nero Fiddled’ which will be released June 22nd (www.RobertoBenigniFans.com for more info) It’s Woody Allen’s latest film it’s expected to be really wonderful.

        I had a wonderful experience meeting him and his wife Nicoletta Braschi. I’m very fortunate to of had that experience. They were just as delightful in their private life as they are in their public life. They were so nice to me and appreciative of my appreciation of them. haha. I really have so many wonderful memories. he is as exuberant as you would imagine and so lovely. Nicoletta is incredibly kind and intelligent. I’m so proud to say I’ve met them. I’m very lucky :-)!

        Thanks for your comments :-D!

        Megan.

  2. Hi Niels, thanks for dropping by Top 10 Films and for commenting. The top 10 sequels list is one of the site’s most popular lists, probably due to its controversial choices.

    I am another who thinks Roberto Benigni is something special so it is great that you should draw light to his career. I will admit that Life Is Beautiful (a wonderful film I might add) was my first introduction to him and I haven’t followed this up by seeing much of his other work. But I have seen Jim Jarmusch’s impressive Down By Law and Night on Earth and Benigni’s is equally as captivating. I love the energy he brings to his roles.

    1. I certainly recommend “The Tiger and the Snow” which is similar to Life is Beautiful but a touch more modern and lighthearted. It is not as good, but it’s still pretty worthwhile. Check it out!
      Thanks for your comment

      Niels

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