Bravo, Benigni! : Movies: Italian actor-comedian Roberto Benigni has been compared to Chaplin and Keaton. His 'Johnny Stecchino' opens in the U.S. Friday.

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Roberto Benigni and Nicoletta Braschi edge into the high-backed booths at Musso and Frank's Grill with a sense of wonder. Despite being two of the most popular and visible actor/comedians in their native Italy, they are a bit wide-eyed at being ushered into the booth that, legend has it, was once Charlie Chaplin's preferred spot.

Their awe is transformed, however, into befuddlement once they are presented with the restaurant's extensive a la carte menu. Deflated, Braschi succumbs to a simple cup of coffee. Her husband, the brave Benigni, however, asks the waiter to describe the Chilean sea bass. But a fast, funny discussion of the differences in broiled, baked, boiled and fried sea bass gets nowhere so the 39-year-old Benigni, wearing his trademark mask of impassivity and guilelessness, orders "a pot of sea bass coffee." The waiter, a true Musso and Frank pro, nods his understanding and departs.

Satisfied, Benigni claps his hands enthusiastically, taking in the room. "Charlie Chaplin's booth, eh? Is exciting, no?"

Since first coming to the American public's attention as the good-natured billiard ball murderer-tourist in Jim Jarmusch's "Down by Law," Benigni has been compared to Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel. Due to his success on both stage and in films as a writer, director and actor, he has also been called Italy's Woody Allen.

Benigni is flattered by the comparisons, but rejects having his talents stacked against others. "When you make a thriller, you are another Hitchcock; when you make something surreal, you are Bunuel," he says. "I like very much the physical comedy, like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but they knew everything about it. I learn from them that the most simple bits, like falling down, are the most difficult things to do in comedy. But, of course, we are not the same, they are like the sky, the best, so you cannot compare."

Nonetheless, with the Friday release of "Johnny Stecchino," in which Benigni not only plays two roles but is the co-writer and director, he is likely to again be compared to his silent era predecessors. The film, which was the highest grossing in Italian history, is, according to its author, "a story of doubles, which is a classic comic theme. . . . It not only gives me the chance to play two very different characters, but also for Nicoletta Braschi, who plays the wife of one man and pretends to be lover to the man she is plotting to kill . . . a madonna and a devil!"

Stolen bananas, miracle cures for diabetes and non-existent dogs are the fuel for this farce, but it is Benigni's physicality, facial expressions and manner by which the movie maintains its momentum.

What connects Benigni to the greats is the innocent's mystification at a world gone slightly mad. There is none of the mischievousness of Chaplin's waif, the dynamism of Keaton or the stupidity of Laurel.

Director Blake Edwards, who cast Benigni as Jacques Clouseau Jr. in an upcoming "Pink Panther" sequel, was intrigued by the Italian after seeing "Down by Law." "The way he looks, moves and his sense of timing are completely unique," says Edwards. "He has the physical sensibilities of a clown, but he also thinks a great deal about what he is doing. Like (Peter) Sellers, they are both enormously talented with a great sense of timing, but there is a great distinction in the temperament. Sellers carried around a lot of demons. . . . Roberto, on the other hand, is this wonderful, sweet, sensitive and intelligent man."

Edwards also admits that it is difficult not to make associations with some of the silent era greats. "Roberto has no 'tells,' which is a gambler's term for mannerisms which give away your intentions. In that, he is like Keaton. But there is also some Stan Laurel there, not as stupid, of course, but the same attractive shyness."

Benigni grew up in a poor family in Tuscany with three sisters. His family had no theatrical history. "My mother and father had never been to a movie," he says, "until they went to see my first film. They stayed all day and watched it over and over. Now, of course, they know everything there is to know about films."

Apprenticed to a magician in his teens, Benigni took off for Rome in 1968 and was quickly absorbed into the underground theater scene. Within a short time he was acting in improvisational groups and writing monologues for his own performance pieces. One of his earliest successes was "Cioni Mario," an account of his childhood.

"I did the entire monologue standing still on a stage with a handkerchief over my face," he explains with the help of his napkin. "There was just a single light. I would make only very slight movements. It was very shocking to audiences because the language was very graphic and violent."

He did not become a student of the American silent comedians until much later. "There was a comedian named Toto who was the Italian Chaplin," he says. "He was wonderful to watch, because it was like he had no bones in his body; it was all elastic. His face was like mask and the audience would think he was from another planet."

The "mask," in fact, is one of the oldest traditions of Italian theater, dating from Roman times and reaching its zenith in the commedia dell'arte, a sort of live Punch and Judy show with stock characters wearing masks. The plays were most often improvisations based on long-established scenarios; the artistry lay in the wit and physicality of the players.

Benigni teamed with director Giuseppe Bertolucci to make a movie of the "Cioni Mario" called "Berlinguer, I Love You." "It is a cult movie now, but then, no one went to see it. In Milano, I went to see it at a movie theater and halfway through, the owner turned off the projector and apologized to the audience--he even gave them their money back."

Undaunted, Benigni went back to the stage and eventually was offered his own television show. Every Sunday at noon, Benigni portrayed a movie critic reviewing films he'd never seen or didn't understand. It became wildly popular and it was not long before the failure of "Berlinguer" was forgiven.

More success in theater and a good film enabled Benigni to get a shot at writing and directing a movie in 1982. The result was a four-segment film called "Tu Mi Turbi." It was at this time that he met Braschi.

"I was studying at the drama academy in Rome," says Braschi, giggling. "And he picked me to play the Virgin Mary." Benigni bursts in. "Of course, look at that face: Everything is there. It is the madonna and the devil all in one. Perfect, no? In fact, in my second movie I cast her as the devil."

While Benigni and Braschi have been involved personally and professionally for the last 12 years, they only recently tied the knot.

It was also at this time that the pair made the acquaintance of Jim Jarmusch on a film festival jury. "We all liked each other very much from the start," says Benigni. "Even though Jim could not speak Italian and our English is very bad, we went out to a restaurant together and laughed all night."

Jarmusch was then writing "Down by Law." According to Braschi, their characters in the film were based almost completely on themselves.

Braschi also appeared in Jarmusch's "Mystery Train," in which she plays a grieving widow who meets Elvis' ghost at a seedy Memphis hotel. And Benigni popped up again in last year's "Night on Earth," in which he plays a wild-driving Roman cab driver.

Benigni's popularity at home skyrocketed with his 1983 one-man show "Tutto Benigni," which he and director Giuseppe Bertolucci later adapted to film. "Suddenly, I was like a rock star," Benigni says with a laugh. "We had audiences of 10- or 20,000 people . . . I was like an Italian Springsteen!"

His notable successes have included "Non el Resta che Piangere" with fellow comedian Massimo Troisi and "Little Devils" with Braschi and Walter Matthau. The latter broke all Italian box-office records until "Johnny Stecchino" doubled that gross.

Benigni does not find it odd or inconsistent, however, that the film, which treats Mafioso as a collection of rather quaint (though dangerous) Sicilians, was received so well by a nation exasperated and angry over organized crime's murderous rampages. "I don't think it is possible to have very good comedy unless there is some tragedy," he says. "If you think of Chaplin's 'The Great Dictator' or 'Gold Rush,' you see that there is tragedy underneath it all. Comedy works best when it is surrounded by misery."

Benigni is not concerned that American audiences may find some of "Johnny Stecchino's" humor lost in the translation. "In Italy, we love Groucho Marx, even though we don't always know what he is saying, but we still want to take him in our arms and hug him. If you are a humorist, like Mark Twain, the language is important, but comedy is more like music: You can listen to it and appreciate it without understanding all of it."

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