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

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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

type
  • Movie
genre
mpaa
  • PG-13
director
  • Roberto Benigni

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