NEW YORK — Italian comedian-director Roberto Benigni is sitting in a downtown Manhattan hotel lobby so cool that the doorman is wearing platform shoes. He and his translator are gazing at a smoldering coffee-table-book photo of John Travolta in his "Urban Cowboy" prime.
"That's me before I went to Italy," he says seriously.
Benigni, who is short, slight and balding, laughs. His translator laughs too. Benigni loves approval and is not shy about showing it. When an elegantly dressed man, a complete stranger, stops to talk to him in Italian, he stands and shakes his hand.
"He said that he saw me in Cannes," Benigni says when the man leaves. "I deserved a monument in Italy because of my movie 'Life Is Beautiful' [La Vita e Bella]. And [for] what I did in Cannes, he was proud I am Italian."
What he did at this year's Cannes Film Festival was bound exuberantly onto the stage and kiss the feet of head jurist Martin Scorsese after winning the Grand Prize. He kissed just about everybody he could kiss. Life is beautiful. Benigni's new film tries to live up to this adage, although much of it is set in a concentration camp, an institution not exactly known for its life-affirming qualities. Benigni, who also directed, plays an Italian Jew who woos and wins a pretty schoolteacher (played by his wife, Nicoletta Braschi), fathers a boy and then is shipped to a camp along with his son. His wife volunteers to go with them. Exhausted, terrified, starving, Benigni hides the horrors of the camp from his son by devising an elaborate game whose rules include no whining.
"It's not offensive, of course, because I know what is this tragedy," Benigni says, the translator seated nearby in case he needs help. "I choose this subject because I couldn't sleep reading about Holocaust. When I thought first about [putting myself] as a comedian in the concentration camp, for me was an emotion flabbergasted. You say 'flabbergasted'?"
"It's a good word, 'flabbergasted,' " he continues. "The emotion I had was so strong because I was attracted by tragedy. Not acting in a comic as a comedian but acting in a tragic way as a comedian. This makes the difference. No need to be a comedian in a concentration camp, but it's enough to put my body as a comedian in a concentration camp. As a paradox I thought, well, the extreme situation for excellence is a concentration camp."
The idea may have made dramatic (and comic) sense, but it also made him nervous. Benigni is beloved throughout Europe and other parts of the world. How would audiences respond to seeing him wear the horrifying striped shirt and trousers? At one point he even shows his son his "lovely" new tattoo.
Benigni says his only difficulties were with wary Italian distributors, who felt that putting his character in a camp would be like putting Donald Duck in one. But audiences, even those predisposed to be critical, responded differently.
"In Israel, mamma mia!" he says of a screening at the Jerusalem Film Festival. "I was sweating during the projection because I could feel the quality of the silence, like something real. Mamma mia! At the end they applauded so much. Mamma mia!"
In Italy, the response has been much the same. He says that aside from accepting him in a more dramatic role, audiences were willing to look at scenes of Italian complicity in the Holocaust because it's a much-discussed subject there. If anything, there's been more of it since the film's release.
In fact, Benigni was able to make this film precisely because of his popularity, rather like Steven Spielberg's making "Schindler's List" because of the success of his popcorn movies. Benigni is known in Italy as the Italian Woody Allen (let's say early Woody Allen), a comparison that, while neatly illustrating his appeal, is not accurate. Both men play nebbishy characters who have difficulties with women. But whereas Allen, who is from New York, gets laughs from his urban neuroses, Benigni, who is from rural Tuscany, is a bit out of it.
In "Johnny Stecchino" (Johnny Toothpick), for example, he is told that a bag of white powder (cocaine) is used to combat diabetes--so he forces it up the nose of an outraged diabetic church official. By contrast, in "Annie Hall," Allen knows exactly what it is--and sneezes.
In another telling difference, Allen, no matter how ridiculous he is, usually gets the girl. Benigni almost never does.
"She can't stay because I'm really like Donald Duck, and you can't live with Donald Duck," Benigni says reasonably.
The "she" is always played by Braschi, who's been married to Benigni for 18 years. Braschi is essentially the "straight man" in Benigni's on-screen act, though she's neither a stooge nor a sex goddess. Her characters are real.
"She's my female universe," Benigni says. "First of all, I respect her a lot as an actress. Very difficult for her because she has to fall in love with something out of this world. I really like her, my face, her face. I can't think about another woman in my stories."