by Logan METZER
Among plebians and film-connoisseurs alike, Roberto Benigni is oft remembered for his flamboyant celebration at the 1998 Academy Awards. Clambering over chairs, reciting Dante’s Divina Commedia, and appearing in the sequel to Woody Allen’s acclaimed Midnight in Paris just tell a part of Benigni’s story and the extraordinary impact he has had on the Italian arts.
Benigni was born in Arezzo, Tuscany on October 27, 1952 to Isolina Papini and Remigio Benigni. His father, a prisoner at Bergen-Belsen during WWII, was the inspiration behind Benigni’s most famous work, Life Is Beautiful (1998). The movie – which he wrote, directed, and acted in – established Benigni as an international star and won him the Academy Award for best foreign film and best actor, making him only the second performer in a foreign-language film ever to win the latter award.
Despite his cinematic success, Benigni has spent much of his time since 2006 touring and performing his one-man show, TuttoDante. The cult masterpiece, which combines current events and memoirs of Benigni’s past with his recitation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, has been seen by an estimated one million live spectators and over 45% of Italian households through televised recordings.
Although neither of his parents had a background in the arts, their lives and stories unquestionably influenced Roberto. One of his fondest and inspirational childhood memories was going to the circus with them.
“I remember…learning that the clown was the high prince. I always thought that the high prince was the lion or the magician, but the clown is the most important.”Inspired by the clown, and Charlie Chaplin, Benigni mastered the exacting art of improvisational humor early and after moving to Rome gained national fame with his own must-see TV series, Onda Libera (1976), until it, and Benigni’s antics, were deemed too inappropriate to be broadcast any longer.
However, by this point Roberto had gained a vast and supportive following. One of his best-known monologues, “Cioni Mario,” was expanded into the feature film Berlinguer Ti Voglio Bene (I Love you Berlinguer) (1977) and in 1983 he directed his first movie, Tu mi turbi (You upset me).
Benigni’s charisma and notoriety has had an impact that extends far beyond cinema, although he undoubtedly uses film as his muse. Consumed with an enthusiastic interest in politics, Benigni has been known to publicly voice his opinion on occasion: in October 2005 he led a crowd of thousands in Rome to protest the government’s decision to cut state arts funding by 35 percent, and he recently wrote and performed a passionate historical reconstruction about the liberation of Italy with some irony on the news sprinkled in. In other cases, however, Benigni uses movies.
Johnny Stecchino (1991), a Mafia farce, set box-office records in Italy in the midst of the most intense crime crackdown in the country’s history, and in Night on Earth (1991), Benigni plays a cabbie in Rome who causes his passenger, a priest, great discomfort and a fatal heart attack by confessing his extraordinarily bizarre sexual experiences.
Benigni appears most recently in To Rome With Love, directed by Woody Allen, similarly beloved for his comic genius. “Apart from Penelope Cruze and Ellen Page, I am sure Mr.
Allen chose me because of my beauty,” Benigni joked in a recent interview with the Times Colonist. Allen, on the other hand, acknowledged with unabashed admiration his “great
thrill to work with the “icon.”
In the case of Benigni, the clown truly is the high prince.