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Oscar Preveiw

He's Happily Stuck in a 'Beautiful' Place

Movies * Life has been wild for actor-director Roberto Benigni since last year's double Academy Award triumph.

March 21, 2000|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Roberto Benigni tumbles into the restaurant at the Chateau Marmont looking supremely distracted, like a man who's just been jolted out of a sound sleep in front of a live audience and told, "Perform!" Instantly, his signature ear-to-ear grin appears and he greets the interviewer with his effusive bray. If anyone can be said to speak primarily in exclamation points, it's Benigni.

Even if you've already forgotten most of last year's Academy Award winners, you undoubtedly remember Benigni making his way to the stage of the Dorothy Chandler to accept the best foreign language film award for "Life Is Beautiful" by climbing over the backs of chairs and audience members. It was one of those indelible Oscar moments, like Jack Palance's one-armed push-ups or Sally Field's nakedly vulnerable "You like me, you really like me" acceptance speech.

"Oh, mamma mia. It's unbelievable what happened. I am still in 'Life Is Beautiful,' and it's difficult to get out," he says, making it all sound almost Pirandellian. "It happened suddenly, out of the blue. One day nobody recognized me here. The next day I'm going to Thrifty to get some bread, some jam. And I'm at the traffic light and everybody is screaming from the cars: 'Benigni! Roberto!'

"It was like it was organized. The taxi drivers. The people in the stores. Just like that. From one day to another. I was astonished."

So what do you do for an encore? How about a little Dante--as in the medieval Italian poet, as in "The Divine Comedy"? Yes, that Dante.

It turns out that besides accepting kudos and awards for "Life Is Beautiful," over the past year, Benigni has been lecturing throughout Italy on Dante Alighieri. His passion for Dante dates back to his boyhood, he says, instilled in him by his parents, and especially his grandmother, whom he describes as a giant peasant woman "with 'The Divine Comedy' in one pocket [of her dress] and in the other, a gun."

Once Dante's name is uttered, Benigni floods the room with a passionate litany so intense it threatens to spill out into the corridor. "You can joke about almost anything," he begins. "But when it comes to poetry, you must be serious. I am possessed by Dante. He is very simple. But not easy. I recite Dante screaming because poems are born screaming.

"Inside Dante there is everything. There is Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. There is Groucho Marx. There is Shakespeare. There is Homer. There is God. There is the devil. There is your life. You can see 'The Divine Comedy' like a movie with a perfect script. It's like a cliffhanger, like commedia dell'arte, like a variety show. There are low things. There are high things. When he prays to the Virgin Mary--in 2,000 years of poetry nobody has ever written a poem to a woman with such beauty."

Pinocchio Inspired Those Oscar Antics

But let's back up a year. When we last saw Benigni, he was doing his Oscar hurdling routine, a stunt he claims was totally improvised; it was only later that he realized he had unconsciously lifted it from a moment in one of his favorite fables, "The Adventures of Pinocchio," by Carlo Collodi. Benigni confesses that it came close to calamity--but for the steady hand of director Steven Spielberg, he would have fallen headlong onto the guests in the row in front of him.

But he didn't, and the audience ate it up. Benigni, who until then was little known outside his native Italy, made Oscar history that night by also winning the Academy Award for best actor. The only other performer to win an acting award for a foreign language film was countrywoman Sophia Loren in 1961 for "Two Women" (who, coincidentally, presented him with the foreign language award).

Since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998, Benigni's tragicomic fable about the Holocaust, which he also wrote and directed, has consumed his life. Ironically, when he decided to make "Life Is Beautiful," he thought that the film would alienate audiences used to seeing him in broad comic roles.

Instead, "Life" became a success of mammoth proportions, transforming him into an instantly recognizable international celebrity. The groundswell began at Cannes, when Benigni was presented with the Grand Jury Prize by Martin Scorsese. He rushed up on stage and prostrated himself at the American director's feet. It brought down the house.

Cannes was only the beginning of what he refers to as his guilt-free "sabbatical" from filmmaking to promote "Life" around the world. The film is one of Italy's most profitable exports ever, grossing more than $200 million worldwide, about $60 million of that in the U.S. (three times more than any other foreign film ever).

And it goes on: "Life" is the first non-American film to be widely distributed throughout mainland China, he says. Earlier this month, he won a Japanese Oscar for the film. While he shies away from admitting that the movie has made him wealthy, when the interviewer suggests the word "comfortable," he seizes it.

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