Little devil and great master

A personal protrait of Roberto Benigni

Leonardo Cardini
July 27, 2006

Its the night of the Academy Awards and one of the most beautiful and famous Italian actresses of all time is slowly opening the envelope that contains the name of the Oscar winner for best actor. Sofia Loren reads the verdict to herself first, before sharing it with the pub-lic. Wide-eyed, she looks at the name and opens her mouth in wonder; she is like a mother witnessing the birth of her own son. Instead of reciting the usual phrase, and the winner is she simply and joyfully yells out the name, Robertooo! From one of the last seats in the house, a little elf jumps to his feet. Hes dressed in black and is wearing thick horn-rimmed glasses. His hair is tousled and his shirt untucked and he moves closer to the stage in anything but the usual way. On his journey to the front, he parts a sea of ducking heads and walks over actors, directors and producers. Benigni gleefully shakes hand after hand, happily hugs Ste-ven Spielberg, plants a kiss on Tom Hanks and takes a moment to cuddle in Jack Nicholsons lap. Once safely on stage, he wraps his wiry body around a touched Sofia Loren, who is one of the two Italian actresses ever to win an Oscar (in 1961 with the film La Ciociara). That night, Benigni receives a well-deserved standing ovation. Once the clamour dies down, he pronounces the following words: First of all, I want to thank my dad, Gino, and my mom, Isolina, for giving me the most beautiful gift in the world: poverty. Thanks to La Vita Bella that mischievous elf was awarded three Oscars: best actor, best foreign film and best original soundtrack. And from that moment onwards, Roberto Benigni became an honorary citizen of the world. Among us Tuscans though, that jester whom the whole globe was just starting to know and love had already enjoyed mythic status. The first time I saw Roberto Benigni was in 1980 at the Casa del Popolo in Colonnata (10 km from Florence) where I had gone by chance to enjoy a beer in the company of a few friends. There was no stage on which to perform, so Robertaccio did his monologue standing in the middle of the room. There were about a hundred people in the audience that time, half of whom had come for no other reason than to mercilessly make fun of the unlucky chap who happened to be performing. It didnt take long for us to see that that night would be different. He spoke, and suddenly the atmosphere changed. No one in the audi-ence made a sound. Everyone sat listening to that funny little man, hanging on his every word. We were like children enjoying a bedtime story, laughing every five seconds for the tales he told. And I sat, too, and laughed along with the crowd, utterly struck by his depth and his simplicity, by his poverty and by his wealth. That night I became a Benigni addict. And the beer I was holding turned warm in my hand. Roberto Benigni became an actor, writer, director and singer. After several lesser-known but not less interesting films, he had great suc-cess with Non ci resta che piangere (1983) filmed with Massimo Troisi, his Neapolitan alter-ego. Federico Fellini quickly fell in love with Benignis style and wanted him as protagonist in La voce della luna (1989). In 1990, he became the voice in Peter and the Wolf, a musical fairytale by Sergei Prokofiev performed by Claudio Abbados European Chamber Orchestra. Next came the films Il piccolo dia-volo with Walter Matthau, Johnny Stecchino, and Il mostro. Then Benigni achieved world-wide success with La vita bella, his intense and moving film on the drama of the shoah.Benigni was born into a peasant family on October 27, 1952 and had his first experiences as an entertainer at the Casa del Popolo in a little town near Arezzo. Managed by the old Communist Party, it hosted a bar, cinema and chameleon-like meeting room that readily switched from political forum to dance hall to theatre, according to the needs of the moment. It was considered a gathering place for a unique brand of revolutionaries, ones with families to care for--simple country people, poor, naive and mostly illiterate. In 1966, Roberto Benignis mother sent him to a Jesuit boarding school in Florence, in hopes that her son would dedicate his life to the priesthood. It seemed, however, that the Lord, or Destiny, as the case may be, didnt much like the idea of a priest like Roberto among the ranks. That same year, the Jesuit school was closed down due to the Flood of 1966, and Roberto Benigni returned to his home town where he began his career in show business as a magicians assistant. His wine-loving boss was often distracted, and poor Roberto often came home with burns on his arms to show for it. So his first two careers were interrupted--one by water and the other by fire. His beginnings combined both Communist ideals and relig-ious studies, and from this we can begin to understand the origins of his complex persona. He is a man at ease playing cards amongst old peasants; yet the next day you might hear him reciting Dantes Divine Comedy from memory at universities in Italy and abroad.In April 2003, I met Roberto Benigni personally. The Tuscan Region had decided to honor his career achievements with a special award called the Pegaso doro alla Carriera. I had been hired to paint a 3-meter portrait of Benigni that was hung on stage in place of scenery. During the buffet that followed the ceremony, I found myself face to face with the Maestro and I introduced myself: Im the one who painted the picture, I told him. Benigni hugged me and showered me with compliments. His enthusiasm left me speechless. How was it that he was complimenting me? All the beautiful words I had prepared in case we met died in my throat. I stood there like an idiot, and didnt say a thing. But now that I think of it, maybe there wasnt really anything to say. Except, maybe, thank you.

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