Does this man really think the Holocaust was a joke?
Brian Logan meets Roberto Benigni - director and star of Life is Beautiful
When the concentration-camp comedy Life is Beautiful won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes last year, its director and star threw his arms around Martin Scorsese, the head of the jury. Accepting the best actor and best film gongs at November's European Film Awards, Roberto Benigni expressed a desire "to jump naked in front of E-VERY-BUUH-DY". And then there were the Oscars for best actor and best foreign movie ... Benigni's demonstrative, even by his own country's standards.
So when I arrive to interview the most popular man in Italy, I'm surprised to find him staring out of the window, in what seems like a rare contemplative moment.
It's over before it's begun. When, to break the ice, I ask him if he's surprised by the success of the film, his hand falls on my knee, his bulbous eyes fix on mine, the smile that lurks just behind his lips breaks out, and he's away: "We're always surprised by manifestations of love. This is my biggest manifestation of love by people, they hug me in their arms and tell me, 'Thank you, grazie Benigni,' crying, laughing. What can I ask more? I'm surprised because it's a surprise, otherwise I'd be very [and he rolls his tongue around the word as only a man who enjoys sounding foreign] presumptuous."
Not all manifestations have been loving, mind you. Opponents of Life is Beautiful accuse Benigni of trivialising the Holocaust. The director, naturally, disagrees: "This is a huge tragedy, and I respect their reaction to it. I'm very sorry about this, but I don't understand it."
Benigni finds the claim that his film is too flippant "mysterical" - he thinks it a tragic film. And besides, "to laugh and to cry comes from the same point of the soul, no? I'm a storyteller: the crux of the matter is to reach beauty, poetry, it doesn't matter if that is comedy or tragedy. They're the same if you reach the beauty."
Benigni pronounces the theory lovingly, passionately. His eyes bulge, his arms flourish, his voice rises: either it's the instinctive routine of a performer so practised he can't stop, or the natural conversational style of a man whose "happy-full" personality would find not only "books in the running brooks", but stories, and fantasies, in everything.
Take the Benigni biography, which assumes an allegoric grandeur in his own telling of it - as if Fellini had collaborated on a re-write of the Bible with Collodi, creator of Pinocchio. The series of happy accidents and Dickensian adventures that comprise his life story feature the young Benigni being plucked from his "very poor family" in Tuscany by a "Fellinian priest", then rescued from life as a cleric by a flood in Florence, then saved by fire from a career as a magician's assistant in the circus. But not before the clown caught his eye.
"The clown was the prince of the circus. Exactly the boss. The clown knows the physical gags, because he could do what acrobats do, he plays all the instruments better than the real orchestra, he could do tricks the magician couldn't do. Unbelievable. And he was scary too. The restlessness of clowns is terrible."
The experience was profoundly instructive. "To be in front of an audience and pretending, and to lie, this is the principle of acting. To lie but to be happy to be there; to be observed and to make people surprised, to make them feel emotion: 'Look, fire in his hand and he doesn't scream.' Or watching this clown and discovering he's a prince, the most poetical and the highest.
"I discovered that in the lowest you can discover the highest. This is wonderful for me, this moment, this is revolutionary." At the behest of his dad and in accordance with an old Tuscan tradition, the magician's stooge became a performer and improviser of poetry. When on tour near Rome with "the old poets", as Benigni calls them - "the youngest after me was 75" - he was offered theatre work.
"It was 1971 or 1972. Everybody was preparing Shakespeare where Ophelia was a duck: the avant-garde," Benigni explains matter-of-factly. "This period was really wonderful, I swear," and he recites Pinter in gibberish to his foot, by way of demonstrating what was wonderful about it. The switch to film came when Benigni and Guiseppi Bertolucci (Bernardo's brother) scored a theatrical hit with a "strong, violent" monologue about "poverty, sex and politics": Berlinguer I Love You was his first film. His directorial debut, Tu Mi Turbi, in which Benigni cast his wife and muse-to-be Nicoletta Braschi, followed six years later.
Eye-catching turns in Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law and Night on Earth later won Benigni an international audience; he fulfilled a more personal ambition by working in 1990 with Federico Fellini ("he was really a Mama to me") on Voice of the Moon. Benigni has paid tribute to Fellini - one of whose unrealised projects was to film Pinocchio with Benigni in the title role - in an idiosyncratic way: "Fellini was like a watermelon. It is there. A watermelon cannot die. Fellini and Bunuel changed my life for me. I don't know what gift the sky gave to them, but they shot in the dream way, in the style of dreams. I am grateful to them, because now the world looks different to me."
Benigni's breakthrough was his 1991 movie, Johnny Stecchino, about a goofy bus-driver mistaken for a Mafia mobster - which became Italy's biggest ever box-office hit. Two years later, he was chosen by Blake Edwards to take over from Peter Sellers in Son of the Pink Panther - an inspired choice, which lacked a script to match. Then, in 1994, came Il Monstro. This film, about a small-time con-man mistaken for a sex-crazed serial killer, topped his previous effort and established Benigni as a huge star in his homeland. "Oh yes," he says now, "too much. Because I am like a cartoon strip, I am like Donald Duck, everybody knows me in Italy".
Italian women recently voted him the man they'd most like to go travelling with ("I was about 10 points over DiCaprio," he boasts); the woman he does travel with, his wife and co-star Braschi, marvels at his popularity. "He does this thing on-stage for 20 000 people each night, a one-man show for more than two hours. They all laugh to die, it's strange to see. It's a wonderful amazement to see all these people laughing, so many for so long."
Benigni has a gift, undoubtedly: he's an instantly loveable physical comic in the tradition of his heroes, Keaton and Chaplin, rather than the "humourists", as he describes them, who dominate modern cinema. At a recent on-stage interview at the National Film Theatre, the audience were in stitches before Benigni even opened his mouth.
It's hard not to wonder where the act stops and the personality begins. At any rate, nothing in Benigni's comic career led the world to expect a movie dealing with a tragedy which, as the film-maker himself says, "takes the place of Dante's hell in our brains". But then, as Nicoletta Braschi says: "The movie is not about the Holocaust, the movie is a love story, and its special character, Guido, is a father who is able to translate into the language of his child the world around that is a nightmare." The film is dominated by Guido's effort to persuade his son Giosu that the execution-camp experience is an elaborate game.
But then there are those who don't so much mind the event being dramatised, as it being used as a mere backdrop, a device, even, to embellish a father-and-son romance. Equally, there are those who resent what they (wrongly, in my view) perceive as the story's suggestion that the experience of an execution camp could be willed away, deflected or denied.
He discusses it with great delicacy, but Benigni clearly can't relate to much of this criticism. He craves the immunity of a storyteller: he is beholden first and foremost to The Story, to the instant he conceived his "excruciating" idea. "In this moment I had an emotion, and it is my duty to follow it. And I thought, I must be brave." As regards the wider argument: "I think I know what tragedy is, what pain is, what sorrow is. Everybody does, not just me. There is an off-limits depending on your own sensitivity, but I was working hard on the story and not on a theory of the Holocaust, which I respect but which is another kind of work and not my job."
There are factual inaccuracies in the movie which Benigni included precisely to distance his film from the historical truth. "Only documentaries of survivors and the majesty of the truth can tell us what is this tragedy. Otherwise you are imitating, which is not respectful. I respect this tragedy so I stayed far away from it. It's more strong if you evoke. I don't use tomato soup, I don't make fake blood."
Unlike Steven Spielberg, for example. But those who've sat through Saving Private Ryan's gory heroics ("You are imitating, which is not respectful") and wondered exactly what they prove may marvel that it's Benigni's picture, rather than Spielberg's, that critics have marked down as misguided. "But I did want to know," continues the director, "if somebody could be hurt or offended by the film, and I sent the script to the Jewish community in Milan. When I understood that they loved the idea, this for me was really a gift."
His film later won the Best Jewish Experience prize at the Jerusalem Film Festival ("I don't know if you can say silence has a quality but watching the film in Israel, the silence was unbearable") and Benigni was given the freedom of the city.
Of course, the hidden agenda underpinning much of the opposition to Life is Beautiful is that its director hasn't the right to pass comment on the Holocaust, because he's only a comedian. As Benigni points out, comedies almost never get Oscars. "The reason is the juries. I've been in one, at the Berlin Film Festival, I proposed a prize for Almodóvar but nobody agreed: 'No, please, it's a comedy'."
With its shower of awards, Life is Beautiful broke all the rules. But even if it had been critically panned, Benigni wouldn't have been bitter. "We need, as clowns, to be badly treated. It keeps you alive. It keeps you real. I like it when they pthh [he makes an extravagant spitting gesture]. But a genius like Fellini knew: he considered clowns as benefactors, as saints, as the maximum of tragedy.
"I think that sometimes only comedians can reach the peaks of tragedy. At the end of Life is Beautiful, I use the lowest gag in comedy, dressing as a woman, but in this case, it is the very peak of tragedy."
The best tribute I can pay Life is Beautiful, which, notwithstanding the moral morass, is a wonderful film, is that it vindicates Benigni's claim that "the point where comedy and tragedy meet, when you laugh and cry at the same, is almost God-like". Benigni is genuinely anxious not to cause offence. "Consider this movie a dream," he urges. He needn't worry. As Braschi says of him: "The sight of a poet can go through everything without damage."
15 April 1999