ROME — When he comes onstage, he resembles the Roberto Benigni whom Americans came to know in 1999, the one who hopscotched on the backs of the chairs at the Oscars to claim his prize for "Life Is Beautiful." He runs in, stage right, wearing the slightly goofy grin that shows up in most photographs, and starts in with lightning-quick banter that spears politicians, the pope and whoever else might be in the news that day.
But as the evening proceeds, the familiar rascal becomes earnest student, kindly professor and, finally, tragic actor who sheds believable tears to the verse of Dante Alighieri, father of Italian literature.
His traveling show, called "Tutto Dante," an unlikely hit featuring the 14th century "Inferno," has been filling up theaters and sports arenas throughout Italy, "just like Bruce Springsteen," as Benigni says.
The idea to bring Dante, studied by all Italian students, to popular venues comes from Benigni's conviction that the Florentine poet (1265-1321) is thoroughly modern and that his personal quest is universal.
"When you fall in love with Dante, you see that he is mysterious and popular all at once, like the universe, or like Bach -- simple and complex at the same time," Benigni, 53, said in an interview.
"The Inferno," the first of the three-part allegory of a search for God (Hell, Purgatory, Paradise), is the most popular, Benigni said, "because it's human, it's deep, it convinces us of how horrible we can be and we can recognize ourselves." But the "Paradiso," he says, "represents the highest that man can reach."
Benigni explains: "In Dante, there is mystery and poetry, it's entertaining, and he shows us all the human passions. But he doesn't say it from an old man's or moralist's viewpoint. He's not trying to teach us how to live because he wants to understand himself. And he tells us, humbly, that we too can make this journey. And it's a journey that is longer, more difficult, more innovative and more important than Armstrong's journey to the moon.
"In Dante we find all the techniques of cinema, with an extraordinary precision, depth and clarity," he adds. "He invented the rapid movement, all the techniques of narrating a story, of set design, and film editing like [American filmmaker D.W.] Griffith in 'Birth of a Nation,' but he invented it 700 years before. He is so modern you jump off your seat -- special effects, he invented them!"
Benigni's performance begins with the stand-up comic act. The one-man-show format deprives Benigni of a bag of tricks Italian television audiences know well -- grabbing the crotch or jumping into the arms of the variety show host/straight man.
The absence of such trademark antics are generally forgiven when he doesn't stray too far from his roots in political satire.
The show segues smoothly toward Dante, through a sketch that illustrates a nearly lost tradition he picked up from his native small town in Tuscany, where locals compete in demonstrating their virtuosity in verse, turning the most mundane of topics into rhyme. From there he sheds the comedian's skin and begins his introduction to "The Divine Comedy," with the line that every Italian knows by heart: "\o7Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, che la diritta via era smarrita\f7." ("Midway in the journey of life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood, where the right road was wholly lost and gone.") He explains the beauty of the rhyming Dante poem: Phrase by phrase, he introduces his audience to the complexities of the 24 rings of the "Inferno" through Dante, who is guided on this spiritual and moral journey by the noble Virgil, the ancient Roman author of "The Aeneid."
Benigni illustrates the fifth canto, or chapter, that describes the tragic love story between Francesca and Paolo, condemned for the sin of lust to pass eternity in the first of the descending rings of hell. Francesca is unhappily married to Paolo's brother; they innocently read the story of Lancelot and Guinevere until passion overcomes them. They are both killed by the cuckolded husband, Gianciotto, who ends up in a lower ring reserved for those who commit the much more serious crime of fratricide.