'Life Is Beautiful' through Roberto Benigni's eyes
Web posted on: Friday, October 23, 1998 4:53:08 PM EDT
From Correspondent Michael Okwu
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Roberto Benigni has been called the latter day answer to Charlie Chaplin, a prat-falling, feel-good charmer who has made film-lovers laugh for years. That's precisely why the Italian filmmaker's latest effort, a fable that's titled "Life Is Beautiful," is both fitting and surprising.
"The first part of the story (is) very funny and full of gags I'm using," says Benigni, who wrote, directed and acted in the film. "Then the second part is not a comedy exactly. It's a tragedy."
The movie, set in Tuscanny in 1939, depicts the story of a modest man who falls in love with a woman he calls "Princess," played by Benigni's wife, Nicoletta Braschi.
Despite Princess' engagement to a local fascist official, they begin a blissful life that is interrupted by World War II and the declaration of racial laws. Eventually, they -- along with their son -- are among the 8,000 Italian Jews sent to concentration camps.
In a tragi-comic twist that is drawing raves, Benigni's character tries to convince his son that the concentration camp is just a game played by Nazis.
'That cry is purifying'
Benigni and Braschi say the purpose of the movie is to make audiences laugh -- and cry.
"That cry is purifying," says Braschi. "It makes you feel better because there's something that gets near to the essence of the life and the death. So it's a good cry."
American audiences may know Benigni from Jim Jarmusch films like "Night on Earth," but it was his own projects that brought him stardom far beyond Europe.
"Johnny Stecchino," for instance, was the most successful film in the history of Italian cinema.
"Life Is Beautiful," as a departure and a risk, may brighten his star in the U.S. The film has already won the coveted grand jury prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival.
'You're a comedian ... Mama Mia!'
If Benigni had listened to friends, the film might not have been made. They warned Benigni, who's not Jewish, about making a comedy set during the Holocaust.
"You're a comedian. Your audience doesn't want Holocaust, concentration camps! Mama Mia!," says Benigni, repeating friends' admonitions. "But my duty is to work in front of the audience, not behind it. If I'm following what they want, I'm dead."
Comparisons, and contrasts, to Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" are inevitable, but Benigni says it's apples and oranges.
"This is very different, this movie," says Benigni. "'Schindler's List' is a wonderful movie, but I am a comedian and my way is not to show directly. Just to evoke. This to me was wonderful, the balance to comedy with the tragedy."
"Life Is Beautiful" opens in U.S. theaters on Friday.
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