“Benigni” – A contemporary portrait of Italian society
At midnight on Monday, March 21 about twenty years ago, hundreds of people waited for Sophia to open a white envelope. Several enthusiastic voices were heard from different angles around the stage and they all had one word in common: “Roberto.” Sophia smiled as she opened the envelope and then cried happily: Roberto. He was cheered on and guided by the excited crowd to the stage. He appeared to be fascinated but in a way that seemed like a performance. Divinely and joyously, Roberto received the award and start reciting from Dante. However, there was one unsatisfied director among the crowd, the one who had expected to receive the Oscar for an old pair of shoes, although he would be awarded many, many pairs of shoes some years later to help him forget the pain of that night. Still, they were not the same. That night was only for Roberto, not for one or two or three Oscars, not for a film or even being celebrated as a talent. That night he became an iconic character who was engraved as persona. Not just a director or an actor – Roberto Benigni’s persona was created.
The main characteristics of that persona were simplicity and following the heart over the mind. He was not as cunning and clever as Chaplin or as intelligent as Allen. Groucho with his great thoughts and Sancho with his slouchiness were miles away from this persona. Roberto is just a simple man with a simple job whose concerns are limited to food and satisfying his instincts. Inspired by the Divine Comedy, his tone is a bit more formal and is mingled with epic qualities and irony, which are the great factors of Italian culture. His appearance does not have much difference as he wears a loose suit and has disheveled hair and an unshaved face. These were all of the physical characteristics of his persona. If you wanted to destroy this persona then you would dub it. It has a quality and a meaning that, like the name of Toto, that you won’t get completely unless it is pronounced in the Italian language.
In the contemporary culture of Italia, Benigni is a mixture of Dante and Berlusconi, with love, desire, joviality, and a poetic sense all gathered together in the same time and place. He desires to be a villain but he is blocked by his simplicity, sentiment and a semireligious attitude; Benigni is the contemporary portrait of Italian society. However, he is not alone and elements of his persona have been repeated many times, such as in in Fellini’s Roma and Amarcord, Pasolini’s Decameron, Escola’s A Special Day, Tornatore’s Everybody Is Fine, Dino Risi’s Behind Closed Doors, Monicelli’s For Love and Gold, and Elio Petri’s Working Class Goes to Heaven, among many others. Benigni’s persona stands willingly alongside the people and far away from the intellectuals.
Benigni’s persona is separated from the New York genius Woody Allen by their differing worldviews. Allen pessimistically demonstrates all of the cultural relations, sociopolitical formations, and the history of America with all of the parties and political currents that he despises. Nietzsche’s shadow is always lurking even in the joyous moments of Allen’s storytelling. However, in Benigni’s simplified worldview, even the deepest elements are nothing but mockery and daily routines are considered seriously because he is Dante’s heir; he believes in carpe diem and nothing more. “Love and death” is unquestionably important for Allen but Benigni thinks “life is beautiful” even with all of its difficulties. Allen’s films view love and lust through the lens of Freudian psychology but Benigni has nothing to do with such a thing. For him, love is spaghetti on a two-man desk and having fun with that. In To Rome With Love, Allen intentionally casts Benigni as a normal, naïve employee who dedicates his life to his family but who also cannot say no if he has a chance for having fun. But there are questions to ask here. What is the function of this purity, simplicity, and fun? What is Roberto Benigni trying to prove?
In order to answer these questions, we have to look at Benigni’s filmography as both a writer and director. His mocking tone addresses all of the events around him. For him, nothing is too serious, but that is not all. In fact, social conditions, political events, and religion are constantly presented and criticized in his films because he is not only serious about everything but he also makes fun of anyone who is serious. These contradictory points of view about an incident like the Holocaust are depicted thorough his exhaustion and straying. His reaction is an answer to humanity’s corrupted ambition toward power (Life Is Beautiful), the ridiculous war in Iraq (The Tiger and the Snow), the Italian mafia and its relationship with the government (Johnny Stecchino), the absurd condition of the Italian minister of intelligence (The Monster) and the contradictions in Catholicism (The Little Devil). In the latter case, the 1980s were the decade in which Benigni insulted Pope John-Paul II, the leader of Catholics worldwide, on a live TV show. This incident led to him being banned from television programs for many years). With all of these actions, his sense of humour would, in a contradictory way, be seen at its peak in the Life Is Beautiful scene in which he tries to translate a German soldier’s orders. The first reaction to this scene relates to the German soldier’s tone as one wonders what he is saying so angrily. A few minutes later, when Benigni makes a connection between the soldier’s robotic gestures and the words for candy and hide-and-seek, the audience is confronted with a new horizon of his persona: he is changing the translation in a funny way, thus the most horrendous and worst events in human history are nothing but a big joke. That is the same thing that Chaplin did in The Great Dictator, though somewhat more conservatively. Then in The Tiger and the Snow, a headless statue in the great square of the town can be seen when Benigni arrives in Iraq. The statue is literally a representation of nothingness. This great achievement is an absolute nothing when you see it in the landscape of death and bombs. Benigni’s idea is that nothingness is the achievement here. He believes that humans have nothing to do with the sense of humour nowadays and he takes people seriously and kills people seriously with war now becoming the main achievement of this human. He therefore unravels this trophy in front of our eyes to illustrate humanity’s absurdity, saying “Lost are we, and are only so far punished, that without hope we live on in desire.” We therefore cannot be hopeful about either the ending of Life Is Beautiful or the presence of American soldiers in Iraq. It seems to be a bitter joke rather what the historians say. It is a black comedy.
In order to not disrupt this persona, Benigni is obsessed with choosing the rules. However, in some of his first experiences with directors like Bertolucci (Luna, in which Benigni plays a crazy worker), Costa-Gavras (Clair de Femme, as a nightclub manager), both in the late 1970s, and also some TV programs and movies in 1980s, he tried to experience something new. However, after that, specifically after creating his persona, the roles that Benigni chose had only the slightest difference from the figure which we know him as today. Benigni is not careless about choosing the films that he directs. There are similarities between him and the crew or he at least finds something in common between the characters in his films and the people who work with him. Blake Edwards is a great example. Although it seems superficially there are a lot of differences between Edwards and Benigni, they have the same perspective deep down. In Son of the Pink Panther, Benigni’s character has been deceived multiple times by others because of his naive worldview but this is only one side of the coin. On the other side, he is looking at everything absurdly.
If we want to choose a filmmaker whose attitude is the closest to Benigni’s then undoubtedly we have to talk about the nihilistic poet of the time, Jim Jarmusch. Benigni took a role in his Coffee and Cigarettes, which has an absurd message. Or in Down by Law, in which Benigni is a simple immigrant (but not a fool) whose lack of language abilities prevent him from communicating with others, such as Jarmusch himself. This film shows Benigni at his best because at the end, when everyone else is so concerned about escaping, he decides to stay with a woman and live happily ever after (the triangle of persona, Benigni, and carpe diem). One of the most interesting parts of Cannes Film Festival has been the press conference which Jarmusch and Benigni hosted together for Down by Law. It showed exactly how close they are to each other, although Jarmusch was not in the mood to talk about the film and Benigni constantly talked about everything but the reporters’ questions. Superficially, they are different people but deep down they both do not care about the incidents which are happening around them. After Down by Law, Jarmusch decided to make another film with Benigni based on his abilities and persona in Italy. All of the known factors for the persona were gathered in an episode of Night on the Earth. Here Benigni is a simple man whose harsh criticism is simultaneously toward sexual perversion involving animals and fruits as well as towards religion. The priest’s death at the end of the film nihilistically laughs at Catholicism. Benigni, in the contemporary culture of Italy, tears down the curtains which are as thick as history itself to reveal the nothingness behind them.
In 2019, Matteo Garrone’s Pinocchio once again illustrated the usual Benigni as Geppeto, who has a bad reputation since everyone thinks he is crazy and falsely ambitious. However, soon they find out how mistaken they are because Geppeto is a sincere and honest man. This version of Pinocchio is actually one of the worst live-action films ever made but the old Benigni is there and his hunger forces him to enter cafes and fix tables and chairs instead of food. Although Carlo Collodi’s story is mostly narrated in the absence of Geppeto, the film is negatively dependent upon Benigni and his character, which is its main weakness. Matteo Garrone’s Pinocchio is bad but Benigni’s adaptation of the same story is unbearable. In fact, the film had one of the most eye-watering budgets in the history of Italian cinema but it was not wisely adapted and the huge differences between the film and the source material made it weird for audiences. Benigni brought the film to theatres as something which all members of a family would enjoy. The problem was a huge gap between his personas in Life Is Beautiful and in Pinocchio, the latter of which had a main story containing not only differences but also contradictions. Benigni was not a good choice to play Pinocchio, who is a villainous child whose destiny is a lesson to be remembered by the audience rather than one with whom they can sympathize. He is a liar and only thinks about himself, which is not Benigni. He is Rome with all of its crowded and scattered places, different perspectives, passion, heat, and lots of things to have fun with.
Whenever Benigni’s persona is discussed, Nicoletta Beraschi must also be mentioned since she has always played supporting characters in his films. She is so decent that no one would be able to imagine her working someone else besides Benigni. This delicate figure is the one with whom Benigni presents his love stories. She is a simple woman who has always proved her true good nature through her honesty. However, in some of Benigni’s films there is social gap between these two lovebirds, with Nicoletta typically playing a rich girl from the city and Roberto playing a poor peasant. The old pattern of the love story between these two characters has been repeated in some of his films but this style of storytelling also has not escaped from his mocking perspective. There are no obstacles for the boy to reach the girl and even love triangles are easily removed, as in Life Is Beautiful, The Tiger and the Snow, and Johnny Stecchino). In You Disturb Me, Nicoletta plays one the most memorable characters in the history of Italian cinema and, perhaps because of this, Italians love her very much. She effectively conveys a sense of saintliness through her kind and beautiful in a short period of time. Is there any Italian who watches the film and does not believe her? Nicoletta also has the same body language and innocence while playing Benigni’s wife in Down by Law. Just like Rome, which hosts thousands of tourists, Benigni is not limited to a specific culture. He is loved internationally.
The last question about Benigni’s persona relates to his presence in scenes which are jokingly funny. However, as a director, he actually sympathizes with them. Examples of this include his character’s tragic death in Life Is Beautiful and Fuad’s (Jean Reno) suicide in The Tiger and the Snow. These incidents represent confrontations between the characters and harsh realities. Out of this clash, his characters pass the borders of humour and the inherent violence of humanity slaps their faces. In those films which are set during wars there is nothing special which a character can do with his or her witticism because a human life is the matter. Benigni himself is saying about Fuad’s death that “When the mind is not capable of reviving itself, it prefers death over everything. This is the main thing which happened in the Second World War and most philosophers, intellectuals, and poets could not resist and committed suicide. Fuad’s suicide is not an act of protest just for the people around him but is a statement against the horrors of war.” Life Is Beautiful is tragically funny. In fact, the director chooses a bitter smile as a suitable reaction to this horrific incident. Benigni is not making jokes about the consequences of war and is instead mostly focused on the situations which the characters have built. Sometimes, these consequences are too heart-rending to forget. The same thing is happening in Fellini’s Roma. Although the city has beautiful sunsets, the atmosphere is overwhelmingly one of grief. Benigni is the mixture of grief, joy, pain, and happiness but the persona by which the people remember him is nothing but his reaction at the Oscar ceremony with all of his craziness. Maybe he was acting there and tried to hide the sadness behind the persona. No one knows. Sophia announced his name but the persona was coming to the stage and rehearsing something about love from Dante: “Love, that moves the sun and the other stars.”