To call Life Is Beautiful, which is to be released next fall by Miramax, a mildly schizophrenic film is sort of an understatement, mildly misleading at that. It is, rather, a two-period, two-tone movie. Part one is a romantic comedy. In 1938, Guido (Benigni) is in love with Dora (Baschi) who is promised to a fascist bureaucrat. Fairy-tale style, Guido elopes with Dora the very day of her engagement. Five years later, they have a son, Joshua. But the racial laws are now in full force in Italy, Guido is Jewish and one day, when she returns home, Dora finds her husband and son missing: they are being deported. She jumps on the train to be with them.
Part two is... only heaven knows what. Life in a concentration camp. Together but separate. At least, Guido and Joshua are in the same dorm. Out of sheer survival sense, at least for his son's benefit, Guido turns the whole thing into a game, a treasure hunt... That is the section of the film which has people either choke with laughter, or choke with horror, and the press conference promised to be controversial, if not downright confrontational.
Of course, this is where Roberto Benigni's personality kicks in. Whether he is directed by Fellini, by Jim Jarmusch (Down By Law) or by himself (in seven films to date), he is clownish, wild, passionate, forceful, and funny. Italy's answer, one would imagine, to Charles Chaplin, but more, much more effusive. Chaplin with a touch of Pee-Wee on speed......
QUESTION: Regarding your subject matter - concentration camps, the Holocaust - what kind of knowledge would you like this film to give future generations? And can humor be used as a tool?
ROBERTO BENIGNI: First, thank you all for being here. I felt some love when I came into the room. (...) You asked a very important question that summarizes the film. The feeling for the movie came to me. I didn't go fetch it. Like Rossini said, he was visited by ideas and creativity from heaven. The idea came to me. I hesitated, then threw myself into the idea. I am a megalomaniac in using beauty. You need courage in love. There was love there. The Holocaust occurred in a place in the imagination. It became an image of basic images.
Now about comedy used in an extreme situation. In the first part and second part of the movie, the character is basically the same. But in the second part, the situation is extreme. There were risks involved. I had a strong desire to make the film. I had to make the film. This is a message to be heard to future generations. It tells a story, although I am just a comedian. It tells the story directly and precisely, but it is a gift from heaven. An act of love. A gift.
QUESTION (to Roberto Benigni's co-star and wife): Is Mr. Benigni always like this?
NICOLETTA BRASCHI: Yes, he is always in a good mood, and he is kind.
QUESTION (to Roberto Benigni): Were you afraid to undertake such a film?
ROBERTO BENIGNI: I was. When one loves, one is afraid. Personally, like all comedians, I am attracted to extreme themes by tragic nature. There are many examples in history of Italian comics. But fear can be mastered. Novelist Primo Levi (The Truce) used themes with variations. There are similarities there with Dante, who used themes never used before. Reading Levi helped me grasp the theme. It made me a protagonist. The artist tells a story.
Comedy and comics - and this is a theory - is always mistaken as a minor genre. This film is not a farce about camps. I didn't want to to put a motorbike in the film, which is a symbol of Nazism. I had an instinct to take this project. Comedy and tragedy reach the same heights. Our genre is judged in a certain way.
QUESTION: You're the first all-out comic to be invited to the Cannes competition.
ROBERTO BENIGNI: All children want to be here. I got my award. Wonderful. It doesn't matter if I get the Prize.
QUESTION: What does poetry mean to you?
ROBERTO BENIGNI: That's a big, big, big question. How can I explain it? What is love? You must be prepared to take risks. Poetry is a need. Like we need to eat, sleep and make love.
QUESTION (to Benigni's co-scriptwriter Cerami): What was the working relationship like between the spontaneity of Roberto and the professionalism of Vincenzo?
VINCENZO CERAMI: Robert and I have worked together for a while. It was difficult, because he would make me laugh all the time. We'd spend weeks finding ideas. He had the guts to say what he wanted to say. I did all the roles that weren't him. That's how we found ideas.
When it comes to spontaneity, Roberto is geometrical. He is mathematical. Before we began to invent, we had to work hard on the structure. The comic side comes later. When we need dialogue, the comic side gives it a unity of style.
The hardest part to write was the first part. The narrative prose of the first part must be consistent with the second part. That was the technical problem.
The second part was difficult from a moral point: Could we undertake fiction of this kind? That was a problem. We were afraid of what could occur. The Holocaust is still an open wound. This is a subject that could not be deep-frozen. We had to go behind the images that have been stereotyped, and take an inventive approach. It's like Proust said: when you find natural life, you find there is blackness there.
QUESTION: If you die at 120, death is a deliverance; at 18, it's a tragedy; at 7, it's a scandal. Is this really the right moment to do this film when so many countries are fighting for liberty and against facism? When prejudice is on the rise? What makes you entitled to make a film of this kind?
ROBERTO BENIGNI: I am sorry that you did not like this film. This was the most beautiful thing I could do and, again, I'm sorry you didn't like it. I'm not a Jew, but that does not mean I don't understand this was the greatest tragedy of mankind. I needed to do this. I didn't want to scandalize it, or sensationalize it.
It's like this story about Kafka. Kafka went to Max Brod's house and spent the night there. In the middle of the night, he got up and went to the bathroom. By mistake, he went into the father's bedroom. He said, "Sorry to disturb you. Think of it as a dream." All film is a dream.
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