Roberto Benigni was an amusing delight in the 1986 Jim Jarmusch films "Down by Law" and "Coffee and Cigarettes" and a wonderfully wistful wayfarer in Fellini's lovely allegorical valedictory, "The Voice of the Moon" (1989). But by 1997, "Life Is Beautiful," his sugar-coated Holocaust fantasy, Benigni had allowed pathos to sink into bathos. His "Pinocchio" (2002) was excruciating in both its Italian- and English-language versions.
With "The Tiger and the Snow," which bears a 2005 copyright but is being released only now, Benigni consolidates his position as the most self-indulgent and altogether insufferable showoff in the movies.
He casts himself as a professor of poetry in Rome, advising his enraptured students to look in the mirror because there they will find poetry peering back at them. Meanwhile, he's preoccupied with his unrequited love for an elegant woman (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's wife and producer). She, however, is concentrating on her biography of "the world's greatest living Arab poet" (Jean Reno), the professor's great friend. She accompanies the poet to Baghdad, where she is seriously injured in one of the first bombing raids of the war. When the professor receives word of her comatose condition and the lack of medical supplies, he's off to an endless series of protracted cockamamie adventures in Baghdad, determined to restore her to health.
This shameless, utterly predictable and grimly unfunny nonsense, in which Tunisia stands in for Iraq, is framed and intercut with a fantasy wedding sequence -- with Tom Waits, no less, as the ceremony's featured entertainer -- that goes awry when for some reason Benigni suddenly envisions Braschi as a donkey when she asks him to kiss her. (If anybody's the ass, it's Benigni.)
Once upon a time there was something heroic about a man as physically unprepossessing as Benigni taking on the world and following his dream. But he has long since succumbed to the comedian's worst enemy, self-importance. It doesn't seem possible that a film with both the formidable Reno and Waits could be all bad, but "The Tiger and the Snow" is precisely so.
"The Tiger and the Snow." Unrated. Some battlefield violence. In Arabic, English and Italian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.