Roberto Benigni insists he doesn't choose to make movies set against wars, but rather, wars "choose me."
"Life Is Beautiful," his 1998 multiple Oscar winner, was a love story set against the backdrop of World War II and Nazi concentration camps.
Now, the 54-year-old actor and filmmaker is back with another love story, "The Tiger and the Snow," which opens Friday. This time the story is set alongside the conflict in Iraq.
Benigni plays an acclaimed but absent-minded Italian poet named Attilio who is madly in love with Vittoria (played by Benigni's wife, Nicoletta Braschi), the woman he keeps dreaming about marrying every night.
Vittoria is writing a book on Attilio's good friend and fellow poet, an Iraqi named Fuad (Jean Reno). She follows Fuad to Baghdad to complete the work. While there, she is critically wounded in a terrorist bombing. Attilio must go through hellish obstacles to get to Baghdad to be with her.
Benigni began planning "The Tiger and the Snow" in 2003. It was released last year in Italy. "I couldn't sleep seeing what was happening in Iraq," he says. "I am an actor and a director and I try to show what is happening in the souls of people and of one man [Attilio] -- a man who is very pure and doesn't know what's happening [in the world]."
And one who is as unabashedly romantic as Benigni himself.
"Love conquers everything," he says.
"I think love is really a tiger. Sex can be a joy, but you can be funny with sex but not love. Love is a drama. Love can be a tragedy."
"Life Is Beautiful" was a surprise hit, winning Oscars in 1999 for best foreign film, best score and best actor for Benigni.
Who can forget the effusive actor jumping on the top of the seats at the Academy Awards to get onstage to pick up his Oscar?
Hollywood deluged him with scripts after the Academy Awards.
"Americans are very, very generous," he says. "But I didn't find the right script. I don't find myself."
His first post-"Life is Beautiful" project, the 2002 "Pinocchio," which was one of the most expensive films ever made in Italy, received negative reviews in the United States and tanked at the box office. He accepts the film's failure stateside with his customary optimism, adding: "You know, in Italy, it was a big, big success."
He's currently mulling over ideas for his next film -- and there doesn't appear to be a war cloud in sight. "I am thinking very simple and very funny," he says.
-- Susan King