Photo by Lucia Baldini
Roberto Benigni broke into America's consciousness with Life Is Beautiful, a tragicomic film set in a Nazi concentration camp for which he was the co-writer, directer, and star. Nominated for seven Oscars, the movie won Best Foreign Film, and Benigni nabbed Best Actor. Making an even bigger splash than the film, though, was his seat-climbing, crazy-ass, over-the-top acrobatics-cum-acceptance-speech on Academy Awards night.
Since 2006, the Italian writer/performer has been doing the one-man show TuttoDante, or "Everything About Dante," which takes off from the writings of Dante Alighieri, in particular his epic, allegorical Divine Comedy. At the Berklee Performance Center this Saturday, Benigni will recite Canto V from Inferno in its original medieval Italian. Ninety percent of the show, however, will be in English "peppered," as Benigni explains, "with Italian." He learned English from Jim Jarmusch, John Lurie, and Tom Waits while working on Jarmusch's 1986 film Down by Law, so if he's not perfect, he says, "You blame them!" We chatted when he was in Switzerland. The best words to describe Benigni: effusive and irrepressible.
You haven't had much of a presence in the US sinceLife Is Beautiful. By choice?
Oh, I work a lot. My last movie, La Tigre e la neve [The Tiger and the Snow, 2005], is out in Europe but not in the United States.
Your stage show is calledTuttoDante, but it's more than Dante, is it not? There's a lot that comes before you get there?
You are right. I used to call my show in Italy before that TuttoBenigni. It was a solo show, alone on stage. So I change it to TuttoDante. The show is of course about Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy and the fifth canto, which is the first circle of Hell, talking about lustful, lascivious, lecherous passions. When you are completely won over, you are in love, also. We cannot flee from that. Dante is talking to everybody, not just in the Middle Ages. I was really proud to present the most luminous part of Italian poetry. This is the second part of the show.
And the first?
The first part, I am going to talk about our times, today, political things around the world, Obama. And Berlusconi of course. I can not spare Berlusconi! [Silvio Berlusconi is Italy's controversial prime minister, a media mogul, and one of the country's richest men. He has been tried — and acquitted — six times on various corruption charges and is currently embroiled in a sex scandal of sorts.]
How do the two parts relate?
I am talking about our times, and you immediately realize they are very similar to the Middle Ages, especially in the mind of Dante. I like very much when I switch from our times to Dante's, because I am just continuing it. It's always the same: our important things, our profound things. The secrets of our lives, they are always the same. And his subject, really, is life. My show is full of liberty, energy, with all my oomph. It's something full of vigor. I put there all my energy in my style. I like the manifestation, the expression, the possibility. When I did this in Europe, it was so beautiful.
You do like "beautiful" and uplifting. Is your show, likeLife Is Beautiful, in keeping with that?
Oh yes, it is my style. The goal of my comedy is beauty. Many times I have been told to do the sequel to Life Is Beautiful, and I always say, "No, please." Or to act in some movie again in a concentration camp with Nazis, or about Jews or Shoah. This was a special and unique thing I did which I cannot repeat.
Is there any anger in your show?
Anger? About what? I don't think angry is the right word. I am angry because there are some people I don't like, some things I don't like in politics, especially in Italy. Everybody knows that I don't like very much Mr. Berlusconi. They tell me, "You're very lucky you have Berlusconi — you can make people laugh very easily." All I have to do is just repeat what he is saying in interviews.
I must ask about your acrobatics at the Academy Awards. Some people loved it, some hated it. Any regrets?
I did what I did because, frankly, I wasn't expecting such wonderful prizes for a non-English-language actor. When I was jumping on chairs, it was not acrobatics, really — I tried to fly. When Sophia Loren said, "Roberto!" . . . What can you do? It's not enough to say, "Thank you." I want to demonstrate the gratitude and the joy. This is my character. I am Italian. I am a comedian. So it was a demonstration to say thank you in my way. It was the truth.