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Roberto Benigni defends 'Life' as 'real love story'

Web posted on: Monday, November 09, 1998 3:33:45 PM EST

NEW YORK (CNN) -- There's probably no topic as tragic or that offers so little to laugh about as the Holocaust. So when Italy's hottest movie comedian, Roberto Benigni, decided to make a film set inside a concentration camp, many thought he was crazy.

It turns out he was crazy enough to win the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival. And now the film "Life Is Beautiful" has been chosen as Italy's official submission in the foreign-language film category of the 1999 Academy Awards.

But the praise hasn't stopped the controversy.

'A real love story'

Benigni is Italy's biggest movie star, adored for his unique brand of slapstick comedy. He's worshipped by Italians everywhere, even in New York on the streets of Little Italy. But "Life Is Beautiful" is bringing him international fame.

Benigni gives an autograph to an Italian fan

The movie starts as a sweet fairy tale about Guido, a poor Jewish man who falls for a beautiful school teacher in Tuscany in 1939. They marry, have a child but that's where the fairy tale ends.

When war breaks out, Guido and his young son Giosue are deported to a concentration camp. To protect the child from the horrific reality of what's going on around him, Guido pretends they're on an adventure and the camp is an elaborate game.

"It's a real love story in an extreme situation," says Benigni. "I was afraid of only one thing. I was afraid to offend the memory of survivors on Jewish people, which I respect so much."

Benigni, who is not Jewish, consulted with Jewish groups in Italy while making "Life Is Beautiful."

"I would like to tell that I was really loved, with the simplicity," Benigni says. "What is more simple than to tell to a little boy, 'This is not the truth, it is a game?'"

'An extreme situation'

Even so, some people are still offended. Some critics don't find this, or any version of the Holocaust, funny, and they have said so in reviews of "Life Is Beautiful."

"Oh, Benigni was clearly setting himself up for trouble and he knew it," says Columbia University film professor Annette Insdorf. She has followed Benigni's work, and is the author of a book on the Holocaust in cinema.

Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's wife in the film and in real life

"He acknowledged that he was trying to find the most extreme situation in which this play of love and bravery could manifest itself," says Insdorf. "And, of course, in our century, what better context than the Holocaust?"

Actress Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's real-life wife who co-stars in his latest film, says she was worried how "Life Is Beautiful" would be received.

"I was kind of a little scared, but, you know, sometimes beauty and great ideas are in a very daring place," Braschi says. "So he dared; he was very brave."

"Life Is Beautiful" has been compared to Charlie Chaplin's powerful 1940 satire of Hitler and fascism, "The Great Dictator." In fact, the number Benigni wears on his uniform is the same number that Chaplin wore on his uniform in "The Great Dictator."

"This is an homage to the master, because I love this movie, and, of course, making a movie -- a comedy about concentration camp, I watched this movie a lot of time," Benigni admits.

Benigni has been compared with Chaplin before. His innocent, often doltish characters have made him one of Italy's biggest box-office earners. In "Johnny Stecchino," he played a bus driver mistaken for a Mafia don. In "The Monster," he was mistaken for a serial sex killer.

"Roberto Benigni is to me somebody who combines the silent comedian's physical comedy with this wonderful verbal dexterity that almost reminds at moments of screwball comedies in America in the 1930s," says Insdorf.

Benigni reads a paper at a café

'I throw myself'

Benigni developed his taste for movies as a boy in a small town in Tuscany, where his parents still live. Too poor to buy a ticket, he'd sneak behind the town's outdoor movie screen and watch Westerns backwards. He even briefly joined the circus as a magician's assistant. By the late '70s he was a household name on Italian television, famous for his madcap comedy.

Benigni got his first U.S. break in the Jim Jarmusch film "Down by Law." His role as an Italian killer in New Orleans won him a small cult following.

"When I shoot 'Down by Law' in New Orleans it was my first trip in United States," says Benigni. "First time -- it was like Christopher Columbus. I didn't know know one word. Just 'OK.' It was my first time out of Italy. Not only in United States -- abroad. So it was too much -- and in New Orleans. Cajun food, I like very much."

Now, at the age of 46, Benigni's back in the United States with what may be his breakthrough movie. At the Cannes Film Festival in May, "Life Is Beautiful" won the Grand Jury Prize and earned a 20-minute standing ovation.

"Martin Scorsese -- which is one of my favorite directors in the world -- said, 'And now the jury prize for '"Life Is Beautiful."' I couldn't believe it to my ears. I didn't know the way, how to manifested my gratitude. And there are people who throw roses, and I throw myself -- my body in front of Scorsese. I was kissing his shoes."

In New York, three weeks ago, Benigni got the star treatment. There was a spot on "David Letterman" and a red carpet glittering premier, an honor seldom bestowed on foreign language movies.

"He does things comically that most people can't do," says actor Stanley Tucci. "It's very hard to do what he does. He makes it seem effortless."

Actress Isabella Rossellini is also a fan.

"His humor is very physical humor, and he does have that same kind of melancholic feeling that there is in Charlie Chaplin -- that you laugh but there's something sad," she says.

Benigni and his wife at the premiere of "Life is Beautiful"


And now "Life Is Beautiful" is an Oscar contender -- vindication for a slapstick comedian who is taking on one of the most sensitive chapters in history.

"They told me it's a very dangerous subject, but when you fall in love something, you must be brave, courageous, and, yes, I was scared," Benigni says. "But because when you are in love or you are naked, you feel vulnerable."

In a few months, when the Oscars are handed out, Benigni will discover if, after all, his labor of love has paid off.

Benigni's next project will not be nearly as controversial. It's a film called "Asterix and Obelix," a comedy co-starring France's surly star, Gerard Depardieu, and it opens in February in France.

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