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Roberto Benigni broke defiantly into the American mainstream like few foreign filmmakers before or since with 1997’s Life Is Beautiful. A comedy-drama set in a concentration camp, the film overcame a wave of skepticism to become a controversial critical darling and the top-grossing foreign-language film of all time. The film netted Benigni a Best Actor Oscar and a prominent place in every Oscar clip reel, thanks to a joyously unhinged acceptance speech.
But where Life Is Beautiful introduced Benigni to much of the American public, he was already a familiar face to international and independent film audiences, thanks to a string of hit comedies and several acclaimed collaborations with Jim Jarmusch (Down By Law, Night On Earth, the 1986 Coffee And Cigarettes). In 2002, Benigni used his post-Life Is Beautiful clout to get a lavish, surreal adaptation of Pinocchio made with himself in the lead role. (Though a huge hit in Italy, the film was a notorious failure in the United States.) Benigni followed up with 2005’s The Tiger And The Snow, a whimsical romance set during the Iraq War. Benigni is currently touring the United States behind TuttoDante, a one-man show about Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy. The A.V. Club recently spoke with the excitable Benigni about Dante’s contemporary significance, love during wartime, and Jim Jarmusch.
The A.V. Club: What can you say about TuttoDante?
Roberto Benigni: About the show, what I have to tell you about the show. Well, first of all, it’s my first show in English in United States. San Francisco will be the first town. So it’s a big emotion, every first time is an emotion! [Laughs.] And can you imagine, with my English? With this accent, I try to talk about the most wonderful thing, the most deeply thing. But you know, I am excited to be there, because the tour now, I am doing the tour around Europe, and San Francisco will be my first time in United States. So I don’t have to add anything, just this. Do you want to know about the show? Oh my God, the show, I could talk here for three hours.
I start in Italy three years ago, and I’m still around the world. I can’t stop. They are asking for the show, this is for me embarrassing also. Because you know, I have to continue… When I started two years ago, I thought I was going to lose some audience, because it was also about Dante Alighieri, about the Divine Comedy. But what happened is the contrary. It was an increase of people, like for a rock concert—7,000, 10,000 people. This is really, I repeat, embarrassing for me to tell, but I cannot stop. From United States, they were asking me to present this in English, pepper it with some Italian, of course. And the show is about the fifth canto of Divine Comedy, which is the first circle of hell, of inferno, consisting of the lustful, the lecherous, the lascivious, how do you call it, lechery, yes. So we are talking about sex, about passions, about love especially. But relating it to our times, of course.
Because Dante Alighieri has the most glorious imagination of modern poetry. So it’s talking about us, it’s concerning us. Everything in it conveys sentiment, emotions. He is really the greatest poet ever. So I am really very proud to present the shining pearl of Italian culture around the world. And also because Dante sometimes is very difficult and incomprehensible. But we need to talk sometimes about incomprehensible things. It’s very healthy. In the meantime, he’s very popular. He invented the language, a new language, a vernacular with slang, obscenity, nonsense. Using this lingo of the entire world, the Western world, and inventing a new language. So it’s really a glorious mind, and this is the most incredible, unbelievable journey. It is a journey for us deeply in our soul and body.
Because Dante Alighieri was not only a Christian poet or a priest, he was a man. He was a real poet. We can understand that this is a very moving show, and the goal of Divine Comedy is beauty. You don’t need also to understand Italian or to know Italian, because when Dante’s writing, when we recite Dante out loud, it explodes a cosmos of illumination like to recite music, a symphony. And it is very modern and ancient at the same time. It’s like a cross between Beethoven and Jimi Hendrix. Bach and Janis Joplin. It’s jazz, Duke Ellington, everybody, Wagner. It’s music. So it’s something really unbelievably beautiful, but in the first part of the show I’m going to talk about modern times. About, I mean, Berlusconi, Obama, Sarkozy, and our times. They are very related, there is a relation, because a great poet is talking not only about his time, but about everybody always.
AVC: Have you changed the show at all for American audiences?
RB: I think it’s the best place to make this, because you know, the greatest Danteists are in United States. So every year, there is about 20 translations of Divine Comedy worldwide, and in this, 20, 15 they make in United States. So every single year, there is 15 translations of Divine Comedy in United States; they’re really well done. So United States is the country where Dante is really known and beloved.
AVC: You haven’t made a movie since The Tiger And The Snow. What do you miss most about making movies?
RB: Now I miss movie because now I have to continue and finish the story about Dante Alighieri, which really is taking my soul. So I am so full of gratitude for the reception, they had my show around Europe, loved it in Paris, in Germany. And then now I am preparing my new movie. I will do a new comedy, not divine, but a comedy.
AVC: What can you say about your plans for that film?
RB: I would like to tell you the story, but I don’t have any. I have just a spark, just a little, little light burning in the dark very far away. I cannot tell you, because it is just a comedy. What I feel is to make people happy, and something very joyful.
AVC: What do you get out of performing live that you don’t get out of making movies?
RB: Because it’s me, it’s my habit to perform live onstage every four, five years. In Italy, it’s my habit. But this is first time I am going out of Italy. This is why I told you I am full of emotion, because it’s my first time outside of Italy.
AVC: In the United States, you’re associated with Jim Jarmusch. How did you come to work together?
RB: I met Jim Jarmusch in Italy. I couldn’t talk one single word in English, and he the same in Italian. So we tried to talk with physical, with the body. We immediately love each other, and Jim decided to write this character Bob in Down By Law. It was my first time in United States, in Louisiana, in the swamp, with the crocodiles. For me it was a dream, this is such a wonderful memory, such a wonderful souvenir. And what it is very rare, I met also Tom Waits and John Lurie, the musician and the singer, and we are still very close friends. Especially with Jim Jarmusch, every week we call each other, we talk. We are still very, very close friends. And we have in mind to shoot another movie together, and I hope it will happen sometime. He is a great director and a wonderful man, really wonderful man.
AVC: Both Life Is Beautiful and The Tiger And The Snow took place during wars. What about that appeals to you as a setting?
RB: Oh yes, The Tiger And The Snow is a beautiful movie. I am in love with this idea. It’s a love story, yes, it takes place in a war again. But you know, it was the Iraq War, and I couldn’t do something, because Iraq War was so deeply in our mind and in our body during this period that I was still thinking about this. By the way, it’s the first movie about Iraq War. But it’s not about Iraq War. It’s a love story set in the war. I am very proud of it, it was an honest idea, too, because I was not using the war, it was just in my mind, and I couldn’t stop to think about this, you know. And so this is why I decided. And this is a movie that I really like very, very much.
AVC: It didn’t get much of a release in the United States. Was that frustrating?
RB: It was difficult to release this in United States, because you know, again, what happened with Life Is Beautiful is a very rare thing, and we don’t have to try to repeat what happened. This is a very particular thing, what happened. My previous movie before Life Is Beautiful was the same, they didn’t release it so much in United States. This is the normal way, I repeat, is not so strange. Maybe next movie will be again a great success in United States, why not?