Monday, March 16, 2009

Roberto Benigni, the Humanistic Italian Poet caught between Charles Chaplin and Woody Allen

Poster of Benigni's film

Benigni's most famous and accomplished work is undoubtedly Life is Beautiful, for which he won an Oscar. At first, I was stunned that someone would have the audacity to make a comedy set in a concentration camp. When I saw the movie I was highly impressed by the strong humanistic and poetic tones of Benigni's movie. It struck me as two movies in one; the first part is a romantic interlude filled with magic and poetry, whereas the second part is a touching story about the desperate attempts of a father who wants to hide the horrors of the concentration camp from his son by turning it all into a “game” of sorts.

Throughout the movie one cannot help but admire the exuberance that has become a trademark of Benigni as an actor, as well as in real life - one only needs to see his wildly frenetic reaction to the win at the Oscars. He struck me as a modern-day Charlie Chaplin who with his gestures manages to entertain not only his fictitious son in Life is Beautiful, but also us, the spectators. At the same time, also a characteristic of most of Chaplin's works, there was a tragic and very humane and moving side to Benigni's character who is struggling to make sense of moments of deep existential anguish and crisis.

Pinocchio was Benigni's next movie, and I had been curious to see it because I thought he would be the best person to fill those shoes, not to say nose. Unfortunately, the movie flopped in a major way in the box office and with critics. To see the exuberant and childish Benigni in this instance may have been a turn-off for most viewers. My personal problem with the movie was that for some odd reason it was distributed in a dubbed English version, which appears to me the kiss of death since no one can possibly keep up with those rapid streams of words the way Benigni can. I must say that I was, in fact, quite amused by the movie, and I thought that there were, at times, quite beautiful images.

The latest movie of his - The Tiger and the Snow - appeared to be a carbon copy of Life is Beautiful only that this time, it was set in Iraq during the war. And it does follow a similar formula even though the two movies are quite different. The first part reminded me a lot of Woody Allen movies actually. Benigini was his distraught self, but he stood out with his neurotic behavior. It seemed also narcissistic in the way most Allen films are when there are beautiful actresses who, inexplicably, seem to be falling for this, not exactly attractive, character. His constant blunders, his nervous energy and the fact that he keeps getting rejected by the love of his life also reminded me of dear Woody.

The second and more substantial part of the movie set in Iraq I found again both funny and moving. I do not think that Benigni trivializes the whole issue. There is as usual a depth in his works, not necessarily political but more as a humanistic treatise against war. The most important character would be Jean Reno's Fuad who represents the disillusionment that Iraqis must have gone through and still suffer today when confronted with the devastation and death in their country.

All in all, I found the movie ingenious and poetically charged at various moments, and the lack of coherence in the script did not deter me from enjoying this movie. It falls short of Benigni's greatest work, but the unusual and heart-breaking romantic song of Tom Waits, You can never hold back spring, mixed with surreal and quite funny images make this film definitely worth watching.

1 comment:

sofiane, algeria. said...

I watched this movie two days ago..
well, it's a real masterpiece !
I'm a keen admirer of Chaplin, and never dare comparing others to the great Tramp.. but I must admit that Benigni in this movie reminded me of Chaplin...

a great movie !