Roberto Benigni has been making Italians laugh for decades – even if it sometimes gets stuck in their throats. With “Life is Beautiful” he wrote film history. Now Benigni is 70 years old.
ROME – Roberto Benigni is Italy’s greatest advocate for laughter. Humor saves – the comedian, actor and filmmaker is convinced of that. With the cinema masterpiece “Life is beautiful” about a father in a concentration camp, who sold his little son, who was also interned, the daily horror of the camp as a game and thus saved him from death, Benigni erected a monument to this attitude to life.
On Easter 2022, just weeks after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, he said in a TV report on the Rai channel: “This moment, when the world is dark, unrecognizable, full of hate and violence, we must with joy, with love and meet them with mercy.” On Thursday (October 27th), Italy’s world-popular clown will be 70 years old.
Benigni was born in the village of Manciano la Misericordia in Tuscany. As a child, his parents gave him “the greatest gift: poverty”, as the entertainer said at the high point of his professional life, at the acceptance speech for winning the Oscar in March 1999.
Comedian instead of priest
After an unsuccessful attempt at the seminary, Benigni opted for the stage and the theatre. As a comedian and satirist, he became known to a larger audience in the 1970s. In 1977 he had his first leading role in a feature film (“Berlinguer, ti voglio bene”), in 1983 he made his directorial debut (“Tu mi turbi”).
Even then, Hollywood became aware of the rather short comedian. Cult director Jim Jarmusch hires Benigni for his black-and-white comedy Down by Law (1986) opposite Tom Waits and five years later for Night on Earth. In the episodic film, Benigni plays a taxi driver in Rome who drives a priest through Rome at night and tells such wild sex stories that he dies of heart failure in the back seat.
The lively artist achieved his masterpiece in 1997 with the film “Life is beautiful” (La Vita è bella), in which he was the director, screenwriter and leading actor. The film begins as a slapstick romantic comedy set in interwar Italy, where clumsy Jewish bookseller Guido finds and marries the woman of his dreams, Dora – played by Benigni’s wife Nicoletta Braschi. They are then deported to a concentration camp by the Nazis with their son Giosuè. There, Guido tells the kid that this is just a birthday game with a real tank as the grand prize.
Benigni manages to bring the sensitive topic to the screen in a dignified and touching way – even if some critics accuse him of playing down the Shoah. The international success is huge. The film won countless awards, including at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. At the 1999 Oscars, Benigni won the Best Foreign Film category and, surprisingly, Best Actor.
Benigni’s cheering in the hall, as he climbed onto the backrests of the seats between the Hollywood stars and jumped onto the stage to his Italian colleague Sophia Loren, went around the world. It is the comedian’s sympathetically indignant and infectiously crazy nature that has made him internationally known. On US shows, he jumps into the audience, climbs onto talk show host Jay Leno’s shoulders and swaps pants with his colleague Conan O’Brien on stage.
But Benigni can do much more than just nonsense. In Italy he repeatedly brings the national poet Dante Alighieri and his “Divine Comedy” (Divina Commedia) to the stage and to the people. The fact that cinema flops happen to him, for example with a Pinocchio film (2002), does not change his reputation.
At the Venice Film Biennale in 2021 he will be awarded the Golden Lion for his life’s work. Benigni has firmly established itself in Italian culture, “unprecedented and incomparable,” says festival director Alberto Barbera. “Few artists have managed like him to combine explosive comedy – often accompanied by irreverent satire – with admirable acting skills and captivating and sophisticated interpretations of literature.” dpa