The imminent release of To Rome with Love, the latest movie directed and written by Woody Allen, should have you wondering the following: what exactly do people see in Roberto Benigni, and why has his career sustained itself for as long as it has?
In Allen's new movie, Benigni plays a man whose actions are scrutinized publicly and in minute detail on TV. He plays an overnight reality TV celebrity, which is especially funny since the image that Benigni has projected of himself is completely divorced from his comedies before Life is Beautiful. While they used to screen all the time on IFC, dumb but satisfying lowbrow comedies like The Monster (1994) and Johnny Stecchino (1991) are Out of Print on DVD. You can't even get the original Italian language version of Benigni's Pinocchio (2003) here in the States: the film's original language version had a limited theatrical run in the US, but now, Netflix only carries the English-language cut. Incidentally, Pinocchio was originally supposed to be co-helmed by Federico Fellini, who worked with Benigni while making his final film, The Voice of the Moon (1990). But even that movie is (legally) unavailable anywhere with English subtitles.
In Italy, the only other popular comedian who has also sustained himself in terms of popularity, but not consistency, is Carlo Verdone. Verdone’s and Benigni's careers are roughly contemporaneous and while Benigni cranked out a number of films as a director and actor in the '70s and '80s, Verdone, a fellow comedian-turned-filmmaker, has managed to remain very popular. And yet, with the exception of the bitingly self-loathing 2004 divorce comedy Love is Eternal While it Lasts, Verdone is pretty much washed-up. He directs a film every two or three years, featuring Italy's hottest young pop stars, and he appears in about one film per year.
By contrast, Benigni is equally popular, but his output has become far more inconsistent. After Benigni's awful 2005 tragicomedy The Tiger and the Snow got a 2006 US release, Benigni came to America in 2008 and 2009 for limited English-language theatrical playdates for TuttoDante. In Benigni's live, semi-improvised routine, he extemporaneously recites The Divine Comedy and talks about the puissance of Dante Alighieri's language, even relating the poet's words to contemporary events, including some anti-Berlusconi gags. Bear in mind: Benigni is also the recipient of a whopping nine honorary collegiate degrees from around the world. He has honorary PhDs in Modern Philology, Philosophy, Letters and Communication Arts. Five of these degrees are from Italian institutions. So, unlike Verdone, who seems to have stopped challenging himself a decade ago, Benigni is still sometimes as impressive as he'd like to appear to be. It's just that American audiences don't get to see that side of his persona very often.
Because the difficulty of seeing many of Benigni's more eccentric projects, I'm forced to talk about the Benigni we know, rather than the Benigni we don't know. I've elected to ignore the image Benigni projects of himself in Jim Jarmusch's films, because those films are either not an authoritative means of understanding the calcified Benigni persona as we now know it (Down by Law, Night on Earth) or are just riffs on a previously-established persona (Coffee and Cigarettes). And that's really the ultra-serious question: Benigni has worked with a couple of great filmmakers. He's a hit in his home country, or was (the budget for Pinocchio was estimated at about $45 million, the biggest budget for an Italian film until then). So how is it that he's been able to be so irreducibly annoying for this long?
For most American viewers, Benigni is the guy who pulled a Johnny Weismuller and made like Tarzan when he accepted an Oscar for a mediocre Holocaust movie. The Tiger and the Snow confirms Benigni's self-identification as a hyper-caffeinated, bleeding-heart eccentric. To quote Jennifer Beals' description of Nanni Moretti in Dear Diary, Benigni doesn't present as "crazy;" in fact, he's "harmless" and "whimsical." But his current sense of whimsy stinks, mostly because it's dishearteningly anti-intellectual, as well as simultaneously manic and flat-footed.
Still, Benigni's two recent movies are governed by a shallow and manipulative, but sincere, ethos. This is a guy who, as he explains in The Tiger and the Snow, looks down his nose at abstract metaphors in poetry and art. If he wants to show his affection for something, he will not hide it in veiled metaphors or, y'know, complex ideas, but rather through effusive, hackneyed images. This retroactively explains why Benigni chose the Holocaust as the setting for Life is Beautiful. To make a pat, pseudo-empowering statement about how beautiful life can be, Benigni needed an event that would immediately bring to mind the worst of humanity, an inciting incident both simple and direct. So he chose the concentration camps and the loss of one's parents.
(Spoiler!) Similarly, The Tiger and the Snow is about a man who fantasizes about winning his wife back, so he heroically rescues her from Baghdad during the Second Gulf War. Tiger is a sort of fuddy-duddy artistic manifesto in that way. Benigni plays Attillio, a poetry professor who laughs at the notion that we have to dream or write poetry about what we want with complex metaphors. Attilio, a scatter-brained romantic, dreams of marrying the same woman every night. His colleague scoffs at this as being "primitive," suggesting that Freud's psychoanalytic theories demand that Attilio imagine this woman as an animal, not directly as a person. But therein lies the charm or lack thereof of Benigni's recent films: they are blunt and proud of it.
If Benigni's character faces a problem, he will not give up until he has begged, cajoled and demanded aid from everyone within the immediate vicinity. Case in point: the woman of Attilio's dreams flees to Baghdad. He follows her there, only to find her being treated for a terminal illness. He takes it upon himself to save her, against all odds, and consequently runs around war-torn Baghdad looking for a cure. This means he has to insert himself into madcap situations, and he winds up being confused for an Iraqi insurgent. How is this the same guy that knows Dante's work by heart? Is Benigni's attitude really just a matter of, as Attilio says, encouraging aspiring poets to acknowledge their limitations and not try to be as lofty in their artistic goals as the author of Inferno? If so, then Benigni's comically jumpy persona really isn't merely self-deprecatingly modest, but rather that of a con-man who’s pandering to a crowd he's not sure is all that smart in the first place.
Benigni's filmmaking and his personality as an extension would be fairly inoffensive if he weren't so strident about being, well, a fuddy-duddy. His films wouldn't, in other words, be so bad if he didn't take acting goofily so seriously. Today, Benigni looks like the constipated King of the Manchildren; he's a self-fashioned populist, a guy who wants us to think he's both a poet and a regular guy. Abstraction in poetry is poopooed outright in The Tiger and the Snow for the same reason that the Holocaust is the subject of Life is Beautiful: because a film whose bathetic message uses the most gut-wrenching context can be understood by anyone. Somewhere along the way, Benigni has somehow confused importance with self-seriousness, and he’s become a popular artist that only people that really want to buy what he's selling can stomach. He's not, in other words, a monster because he's a narcissist, but rather because the version of himself he's in love with is insufferable.
But a lot of people like Benigni almost as much as he does. His fans enjoy his manboy schtick, which is understandable since he makes such great displays of his sincerity as a humanist comedian in the Chaplin mode. He's perfected his slapsticky public persona to the point where his recent ideas make him look more like a juvenile intellectual than a facial-tic-ridden anti-intellectual reactionary. So it's simultaneously fitting and rather strange to think that Benigni is also the guy whose most versatile comedic performances—that American audiences have had the privilege of seeing—are probably in The Monster and Johnny Stecchino, comedies where his protagonist is respectively confused for a rapist and a gangster. If anything, what's most refreshing about Benigni is that he's still trying to figure out who he wants to be. If only he took himself less seriously while doing it.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.