Robert Benigni makes it big in Hollywood -- A chat with the director responsible for ''Life Is Beautiful''

His forehead’s as big as Tom Cruise’s entire face. His eyes are too wide, his lips too thin, what’s left of his hair is a tangled shrub…okay, okay, the guy’s funny looking. But he’s also just plain funny — and that’s why, in his native Italy, Roberto Benigni is a Star. Yet while the 46-year-old director-screenwriter-actor’s ribald comedies Johnny Stecchino (1991) and Il Mostro (The Monster) (1994) broke Italian box office records, his performances here — in Night on Earth (1991), Down by Law (1986), and Son of the Pink Panther (1993) — have attracted about as much attention as a cold plate of pasta e fagioli.

Now, though, thanks to Life Is Beautiful, which won this year’s Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, Benigni is flirting with fame, American style. Set in a Nazi concentration camp, the tragicomedy (which costars Benigni’s wife of seven years, Nicoletta Braschi) is currently the largest grossing foreign film in the U.S.: After only three weekends in wide release, Life grossed more than $4 million and is on track to duplicate — if not exceed — the success of other foreign crossovers like 1994’s Il Postino. Italy has submitted Life for Best Foreign Film, and Miramax, in a double Oscar campaign, will push for a Best Picture nomination. Even members of the Jewish community, who at first expressed concern about Life, are rallying behind Benigni. ”Humor and the Holocaust are antithetical,” says Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor and director of the Anti-Defamation League, ”but what I didn’t think was doable he made doable. We needed someone of his stature and genius to take the risk.”

That’s quite an endorsement for a Tuscan who could barely say ”thank you” when he arrived in the States to film Down by Law. Twelve years later, Benigni’s English is still only mezzo-mezzo, but he manages to wax eloquent on Life, laughter, love, and…love.

EW: Why did you choose to set this movie during the Holocaust?
ROBERTO BENIGNI: If I could understand how the idea comes, I could teach theology first! My father had been in a work camp in Germany for two years, and when he came back, he told us each evening about this period. He had the strength and the necessity to talk — to tell the story just to be free.

EW: Life Is Beautiful tells the stories of a relationship between a father and son, a husband and wife, and World War II. What do you think the movie is ultimately about?
RB: It’s about love. The love destroyed by the craziness of I don’t know what. Everything is about love. You know, [Benigni points to his coffee cup] this cappuccino is love. Love moves the sun and the stars; the stars love the skies. Also, this interview is about love.

EW: Did you face any resistance while making the film?
RB: I can do anything in Italy, [but] when I decided [to do] this, everybody was telling me, ”You’re crazy!” — because in Italy, I am like Donald Duck, I am so well-known as a comedian.

EW: As a non-Jewish comedian, were you concerned about taking on the Holocaust?
RB: This is a subject forbidden for a comedian. Tragic people can do what they want, but comedians, no. This makes me very mad. I sent my script to the Jewish community in Milan, and they loved the story.

Life Is Beautiful
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