Italian comedian-director Roberto Benigni is sitting in a downtown Manhattan hotel lobby so cool that the doorman is wearing platform shoes. He and his translator are gazing at a smoldering coffee-table-book photo of John Travolta in his "Urban Cowboy" prime.
"That's me before I went to Italy," he says seriously.
Benigni, who is short, slight and balding, laughs. His translator laughs too. Benigni loves approval and is not shy about showing it. When an elegantly dressed man, a complete stranger, stops to talk to him in Italian, he stands and shakes his hand.
"He said that he saw me in Cannes," Benigni says when the man leaves. "I deserved a monument in Italy because of my movie 'Life Is Beautiful' [La Vita e Bella]. And [for] what I did in Cannes, he was proud I am Italian."
What he did at this year's Cannes Film Festival was bound exuberantly onto the stage and kiss the feet of head jurist Martin Scorsese after winning the Grand Prize. He kissed just about everybody he could kiss. Life is beautiful. Benigni's new film tries to live up to this adage, although much of it is set in a concentration camp, an institution not exactly known for its life-affirming qualities. Benigni, who also directed, plays an Italian Jew who woos and wins a pretty schoolteacher (played by his wife, Nicoletta Braschi), fathers a boy and then is shipped to a camp along with his son. His wife volunteers to go with them. Exhausted, terrified, starving, Benigni hides the horrors of the camp from his son by devising an elaborate game whose rules include no whining.
"It's not offensive, of course, because I know what is this tragedy," Benigni says, the translator seated nearby in case he needs help. "I choose this subject because I couldn't sleep reading about Holocaust. When I thought first about [putting myself] as a comedian in the concentration camp, for me was an emotion flabbergasted. You say 'flabbergasted'?"
"It's a good word, 'flabbergasted,' " he continues. "The emotion I had was so strong because I was attracted by tragedy. Not acting in a comic as a comedian but acting in a tragic way as a comedian. This makes the difference. No need to be a comedian in a concentration camp, but it's enough to put my body as a comedian in a concentration camp. As a paradox I thought, well, the extreme situation for excellence is a concentration camp."
The idea may have made dramatic (and comic) sense, but it also made him nervous. Benigni is beloved throughout Europe and other parts of the world. How would audiences respond to seeing him wear the horrifying striped shirt and trousers? At one point he even shows his son his "lovely" new tattoo.
Benigni says his only difficulties were with wary Italian distributors, who felt that putting his character in a camp would be like putting Donald Duck in one. But audiences, even those predisposed to be critical, responded differently.
"In Israel, mamma mia!" he says of a screening at the Jerusalem Film Festival. "I was sweating during the projection because I could feel the quality of the silence, like something real. Mamma mia! At the end they applauded so much. Mamma mia!"
In Italy, the response has been much the same. He says that aside from accepting him in a more dramatic role, audiences were willing to look at scenes of Italian complicity in the Holocaust because it's a much-discussed subject there. If anything, there's been more of it since the film's release.
In fact, Benigni was able to make this film precisely because of his popularity, rather like Steven Spielberg's making "Schindler's List" because of the success of his popcorn movies. Benigni is known in Italy as the Italian Woody Allen (let's say early Woody Allen), a comparison that, while neatly illustrating his appeal, is not accurate. Both men play nebbishy characters who have difficulties with women. But whereas Allen, who is from New York, gets laughs from his urban neuroses, Benigni, who is from rural Tuscany, is a bit out of it.
In "Johnny Stecchino" (Johnny Toothpick), for example, he is told that a bag of white powder (cocaine) is used to combat diabetes--so he forces it up the nose of an outraged diabetic church official. By contrast, in "Annie Hall," Allen knows exactly what it is--and sneezes.
In another telling difference, Allen, no matter how ridiculous he is, usually gets the girl. Benigni almost never does.
"She can't stay because I'm really like Donald Duck, and you can't live with Donald Duck," Benigni says reasonably.
The "she" is always played by Braschi, who's been married to Benigni for 18 years. Braschi is essentially the "straight man" in Benigni's on-screen act, though she's neither a stooge nor a sex goddess. Her characters are real.
"She's my female universe," Benigni says. "First of all, I respect her a lot as an actress. Very difficult for her because she has to fall in love with something out of this world. I really like her, my face, her face. I can't think about another woman in my stories."
In "Life Is Beautiful," falling in love with Benigni's character is not a problem for her, because he's more of a "real man," an intellectual who knows Schopenhauer and Offenbach. In fact, the first half of the movie is devoted to their courtship, which is almost overwhelmingly whimsical--the better, perhaps, to contrast with the much darker second half.
When asked if this character is closer to who he really is, Benigni laughs and says, "I would like. But I like the other to be out also. Together they are wonderful."
Like many comedians, Benigni, who is 45, uses humor to deal with things that are not so funny--though, unlike many American comics, there's very little hostility in his approach. He says that his family was poor, so poor that when he was young he slept with four women (his mother and three older sisters). During the war, his father spent two years in a German work camp making missile parts under conditions similar to those of a concentration camp (except there were no gas chambers). He would often talk about this experience--the bugs, the smells, the bread--but in a humorous way, which Benigni obviously absorbed. A strange footnote to the camps is that the Italians in them often were jesters.
"They were clowns," Benigni says. "Talking jokes during the camp, being ironic with the other people."
Benigni eventually left home to attend a seminary in Florence (a notion that prompts the interpreter to laugh again). In a surreal series of events, the seminary was flooded out, forcing him to return home, where he found work in a local circus. He explains it this way:
"This big priest, like a Fellini priest, telling me, 'Do you feel something, my son?!' To be interesting, I said, 'Yes, I feel very much.' He told my parents I have a program for him, very good. He got me to Florence, this Jesuit school, very serious, studying Machiavelli. And then the flood saved me. Or maybe it was my damnation. One can never tell. So from the seminary I passed to a circus. Like Mickey Mouse in 'Fantasia,' the assistant of a magician."
This first brush with show-biz didn't last long, however. He quit "because I fired my body." Working with the magician, he was burned on the hand, the butt and the knees. He now sees this event as a companion piece to the flooded seminary.
"The water and the fire saved me," he says.
What really saved Benigni was his talent at the old Tuscan tradition of improvised song and poetry, which was encouraged by his father. A director saw him perform and brought him to Rome, where he participated in underground theater. This was in the late '60s.
"You know, this period [was] where we're making 'Romeo and Juliet,' but Juliet was a chicken," Benigni says. "But very good, not bad."
At one point he wrote a monologue about his childhood--"very funny and very tragic." Unlike America, which has a tradition of comic monologuists, there was no such thing in Italy. Benigni's monologue was a breakthrough, both for him and the convention. He made a movie featuring his monologuist character and then appeared on Italian TV, notably as a film critic who brought the country to a standstill every Sunday at 3 p.m. with his comic reviews of movies he obviously hadn't seen.
Since then, Benigni has appeared in cabarets and theaters. He's worked for such directors as Bertolucci and Fellini. He's directed himself, one of his favorite films being "Il Mostro" (The Monster), in which he plays a con man who's accused of being a serial rapist (Braschi plays a cop who tries to seduce him into going serial again). He's also appeared in English for directors Blake Edwards ("Son of the Pink Panther") and Jim Jarmusch ("Down by Law," "Night on Earth").
He says he'd like to make more movies in America and has even been approached by Disney and Warner Bros. to develop projects. The problem is that it's difficult to find the right vehicle for him here. Typically, American movies featuring Italians involve either the Mafia or immigrants. It's not much of a choice, especially for a man who can make a comedy about the Holocaust.