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Roberto Benigni

“It’s a sign of mediocrity when you demonstrate gratitude with moderation”.

Roberto Benigni - Florence ItalyEmbedded into the life of Roberto Benigni is a deep essence of gratitude, the acknowledgement of his roots and an eternal empathy with humankind. Born in Misercordia Arezzo, Tuscany, Italy, on October 27th, 1952, Roberto was the only boy in family and the last of his siblings. They were so poor that he had to share the bed with his mother and his four sisters in a town called Vergaio with a population of only 3000 people. Roberto lived in a world of make believe, building stories and enchanted tales from a prolific imagination. With no toys or books, he created a special aura around himself, convincing himself that he did not need anything else except what the heavens or the ‘sky’ had to offer.

With a child-like trust in the world that he created, Roberto’s love of all things simple stemming from a simple existence, led to an understanding of the life around him with an innocent and naïve trust. Living on a day to day basis, he meandered through a secret world that eventually opened up his artistic talents to the wonderful theatre of imagination. Roberto’s father, Luigi, in 1943, left his wife, Isolina, to search for a better paying job. But unfortunately when he landed in Albania, he walked straight into the Nazi net and landed up in a labor camp. Starved and only weighing 77 lbs. he spent his time at the camp working for the Germans like any other prisoner of the Holocaust. But two years later he escaped from death’s door and found his way back home. The re-united couple then started a family after a traumatic time of pain and mental agony. Roberto Benigni’s imagination fueled not only with stories of his own imagination grew up with real-life stories of the Holocaust from a real prisoner of war.

Influenced by the Elements

Roberto emerged from this pain-ridden past to a personality who transformed the last Motion Pictures Academy Awards of the 20th century. Restructuring his penchant for the art of humor, Roberto Benigni would come to be known as a celebrated artist who through the veneer of comedy would re-paint the horrors of the Holocaust into a memorable canvas. Benigni was an awkward child with all the characteristics of an ‘ugly duckling’. His mother agonizing over the appearance of her child and believing firmly that he was ‘bewitched’ often subjected him to vile concoctions in the hope that it would change his appearance. Little Roberto sick with the so-called magical brews by the time he was twelve met a priest who had stopped to visit. The priest believing that Roberto was the victim of foul play asked him if he had any visions from Heaven. Roberto’s imagination already full to the brim with his own creative stories decided to indulge the priest and told him that there were visions from above. The priest convinced that he was dedicated to the holy life bundled him off to join a school for priests in Florence. But Roberto’s future had another direction. In 1964, just about a year after he joined the training period, a flood destroyed the school. Young and afraid, he made his way back home.

Roberto’s family at this time was living in a state of abject poverty. But with the innate background of love and concern, his recollections of these times were, “pleasant and filled with humanity and the warmth of the night air”. The poverty of the Benigni children dissolved into the magic of the Drolin circus which was visiting the town. With no money to pay for the tickets, the children would sneak in to watch the last magnetic moments of the circus. Drawn into this enchanted world, Roberto became totally entranced with the lions, the clowns, the magicians and the flying trapeze. Fascinated with the clowns around whom the circus revolved, Roberto was noticed by one of the magicians who offered to let him watch the performances for free. The magician soon offered him a job doing a magical fire trick. But his mother on noticing the burns on his hands refused to let him go back to work.

The Magic World

Benigni with his vivid imagination was still not clear as to where his life would lead him. When he was into his teens, he discovered the magic of the celluloid world. Impressed immensely by ‘Ben Hur’ with actor Charlton Heston and director Willian Wilder, he watched the film several times. Douglas Sirks ‘Imitation of Life left a lasting mark on him. Roberto felt that the ‘sky’ had given this director a great gift. By this time another priest channeled Benigni into joining a secretarial college. But it was Luigi, his father, who inadvertently steered Roberto onto a different path. The Tuscany tradition motivated Luigi to lead his son into improvising the poems of Aristo and Spenser. The young Benigni learned the art of rhyming verses and improvised them with vulgar language according to the characters provided by the audience and became a great hit.

Benigni aware that he possessed artistic abilities, joined an Underground theater in Italy for a year. He moved on to Rome where he was this time really ‘bewitched’ by the avant-garde theater being exposed to the works of William Shakespeare. The theater opened a vista of the classics and the works of Toto, the clown from Naples and he perfected the ‘erotic’ art of humor where he learned that it is “far easier to reach the depth of misery through a comedy that it is through drama”. He studied the works of Charlie Chaplin learning to use his body to reflect the nuances of humor.

He met Guiseppi Bertolucci, the director and together they improvised monologues on Vergaio, Roberto’s home town. Performing to audiences who adored him, Roberto became Italy’s biggest comedian. He appeared on television in 1977, and was offered to write the screenplay for the motion picture, ‘The Building where I loved you’, a movie that his parents would watch for the first time in their lives in a theater. Soon Roberto met the greatest directors of motion pictures in Italy, Frederico Fellini and Bunuel. A fortunate meeting of minds led to the molding of the personality he is today. This encounter taught him the beauty in simplicity, the power of silence and the need to take risks to avoid predictability. Roberto also acted in Fellini’s picture, ‘La Voce Della Luna’.

Lifetime Awards

Roberto by this time had started writing, directing and starring in motion pictures. His debut as a director was titled ‘Tu Mi Tuibi’. He cast a young actress, Nicoletta Braschi, as the Virgin Mary in his film, ‘You Move Me’, and soon it was a real life love story uniting in marriage in 1991. Nicoletta had starred in four of his movies since then. Moving on as a director of repute earned him accolades with Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Down by Law’ in 1986, ‘Night on Earth’ in 1991, and ‘Son of the Pink Panther’ in 1993. Benigni wrote and directed, ‘Johnny Stecchino’ released in 1992, out grossing both Kevin Costner’s ‘Robin Hood Prince of Thieves’ and Arnold Schwazennegger’s ‘Terminator II’. This movie won him the david di Donatello award. In 1996, his picture ‘The Monster’ shadowed Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ and Tom Hanks’, ‘Forrest Gump’. His other works are, ‘The Little Devil’, ‘ll Pap’occhio’ and ‘ll Minestrone’.

But Benigni’s piece de resistance was, ‘Life is Beautiful’ released in 1998. Attributing the film to the experiences of his father during the Holocaust, Benigni drew the script from the narrations of his father which was portrayed with the wonder of life and its miracles. As a simple rendition, ‘Life is Beautiful’ handled in a simple yet appealing manner captivated the world. Premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1998, ‘Life is Beautiful’, captured the People’s Choice Award. The film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Benigni sent the film to the Jewish community and to the Pope for approval and it was accepted. Going on to win three of the awards of the 7 Motion Picture Awards, ‘Life is Beautiful’ won the ‘Best Foreign Film Award, the ‘Best Musical Score’ and the ‘Best Actor Award’. Though Italian pictures have won in the Best Foreign Film category twelve times, it is for the first time that a non-English speaking actor won the ‘Best Actor Academy Award’.

The Magician

Since the Oscar winning Sir Lawrence Olivier, Benigni is the first film maker to direct his own Oscar winning film. As a man, Roberto Benigni will always be a passionately caring, full of energy, funny and a creative personality, though physically he just appears to be skinny, short and balding. But Roberto Benigni continues his reel life with the same respect that he shows in real life to his wife, family, his creative art and his fans. Discovering a rainbow in a storm, Roberto Benigni shares life’s wonders with his loved ones and the world, which will always be grateful to him for a legacy of humor, love and the courage to persevere.