Nationality: Italian. Born: Arrezo, Tuscany, 27 October 1952. Family: Married the actress Nicoletta Braschi, 1991. Career: At age 10 or 11, member of troubadour act in rural Tuscany that improvised songs and poetry; also was a circus clown for a short time; late 1960s—moved to Rome and acted in underground experimental theater there; 1976—film debut in adaptation of "Cioni Mario" monologue, Berlinguer ti volgio bene; 1982—directing debut with Tu mi turbi; live TV monologue critical of Pope John Paul II brought widespread notoriety; 1984—met Jim Jarmusch at a film festival near Parma, leading to American debut in Down by Law, 1986, and appearance in second Jarmusch film, Night on Earth, 1991; 1993—first major Hollywood studio role in the box-office failure Son of the Pink Panther; 1995–96—toured Italy in one-man show, a mock political rally, drawing overall attendance of more than one million. Awards: Italian Golden Grail for Best Actor, for Il minestrone, 1980; Nastri d'Argento Award for Best Actor, for Down by Law, 1986; David Di Donatello Award for Best Actor, for Il piccolo diavolo, 1988; Academy Award for Best Actor for La Vita E Bella, 1998. Address: Via Traversa 44, Vergaglio, Prato, Italy.
Films as Actor:
Berlinguer ti volgio bene (I Love You, Berlinguer) (Giuseppe Bertolucci) (as Cioni Mario, + co-sc)
Chiedo asilo (Marco Ferreri) (as Roberto, + co-sc); Clair defemme (Womanlight) (Costa-Gavras); La Luna (Luna)(Bernardo Bertolucci) (as upholsterer)
Il minestrone (Minestrone)
Il Pap'Occhio (In the Pope's Eye) (Arbore)
Tuttobenigni (All Benigni) (Giuseppe Bertolucci)
Down by Law (Jarmusch) (as Roberto)
La Voce della Luna (The Voice of the Moon) (Fellini) (as Ivo Salvini)
"Rome" ep. of Night on Earth (Jarmusch) (as Gino, the taxi driver)
Son of the Pink Panther (Edwards) (as Jacques Gambrini/Jacques Clouseau, Jr.)
Astérix et Obélix contre César (Zidi) (as Lucius Detritus)
Films as Actor and Director:
Tu mi turbi (You Disturb Me)
Non ci resta che piangere (There's Nothing Left but Crying)(as Saverio, co-d with Massimo Troisi)
Il piccolo diavolo (The Little Devil) (as Giuditta, + co-sc)
Johnny Stecchino (Johnny Toothpick) (as Dante/Johnny Stecchino, + co-sc)
Il mostro (The Monster) (as Loris, + co-sc, co-pr)
La Vita E Bella (Life is Beautiful) (as Guido, + co-sc)
By BENIGNI: books—
Johnny Stecchino, with Vincenzo Cerami, Rome, 1991.
Il mostro: romanzo, with Vincenzo Cerami, Milan, 1994.
By BENIGNI: articles—
Interview with J. Rood, in Skoop (Amsterdam), June/July 1980.
"Eloge du bouffon," interview with F. Sabouraud, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), March 1987.
"Roberto Benigni Is a True Maestro among Clowns, a Fool as Fine Artist," interview with Robert Gerber, in Interview (New York), April 1990.
Interview with A. Samueli, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1990.
"Mille et une emotions," in Positif (Paris), May 1990.
"Een harlekijn uit Toscanie," interview with F. Sartor, in Film en Televisie + Video (Brussels), May/June and July/August 1992.
On BENIGNI: articles—
Darnton, Nina, "Down by Law Star: A Pinocchio, by Way of Chico Marx," in New York Times, 19 November 1986.
Buffa, M., "Benigni esorcista di se," in Filmcritica (Rome), January/February 1989.
Saada, N., and T. Jousse, "Roberto Benigni," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1989.
Filmography in Segnocinema (Vincenza, Italy), January/February 1992.
Brennan, Judy, "A Benigni Press Conference Baedeker," in Variety (New York), 18 May 1992.
Cowell, Alan, "Roberto Benigni Readies More Laughs for Export," in New York Times, 19 July 1992.
Randall, Frederika, "Italy's Comic Savior," in Wall Street Journal, 10 April 1996.
Cosulich, Callisto, "Benigni-wizerunek radosny," in Kino (Warsaw), July-August 1998.
New York Times (New York), 23 October 1998.
Vanity Fair (London), October 1998.
Sight and Sound (London), February 1999.
* * *
Screen comedians seem to be overly burdened with comparisons to past comedic giants. In a relatively short career to date, Roberto Benigni—the most popular comic talent in Italy in the late 20th century—has been compared to more than his share, with the list ranging from the inevitable (Toto) to the obvious (Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Harpo and Chico Marx) to the seriously misguided (Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Jim Carrey). Cliché though it may be, Benigni is a unique comic genius whose variety of talents stem from a most unusual apprenticeship into entertainment, and conjure up such a wellspring of comparisons.
Benigni was born and raised in poverty in a small Tuscan village. His gift for improvisation was nurtured early on (age 10 or 11) with his immersion into the Italian tradition of improvised song and poetry through a sort of troubadour act that traveled rural Tuscany. After another formative experience during the several months he spent as a circus clown, Benigni's vocation was cemented when at about age 16 he leaped up on a platform in the town square of Prado (in Tuscany, near Florence) and, pretending to be a political candidate, gave a "speech" that was greeted with hearty laughter from the crowd that filled the square. In the audience was the director of an avant-garde theater company, who persuaded Benigni to move to Rome and join his company. In Rome, Benigni worked in the theater, television, and film throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, achieving initial success through monologues, particularly one called "Cioni Mario" about a sex-obsessed man from his hometown who never has sex, but thinks and talks of nothing else. This was adapted by Giuseppe Bertolucci in 1976 as Berlinguer ti volgio bene, Benigni's film debut; later Bertolucci would adapt another smash stage show, Tuttobenigni. Benigni's initial appearances in features were in minor roles but for major directors: Marco Ferreri's Chiedo asilo, Costa-Gavras's Clair de femme, and Bernardo Bertolucci's La Luna. He made a very early move into directing—forced to, he says, because of the lack of Italian directors able to do comedy—debuting in 1982 with Tu mi turbi, but received accolades for his second directing effort, Non ci resta che piangere. Co-directed with co-star Massimo Troisi, this delightful film has the two stars time-traveling to 1492 Italy where they attempt to cash in on their 20th century foreknowledge with comic results.
During this period, Benigni developed his signature persona, building off a body well-suited to physical comedy—wild hair, receding, creating a halo head; tall with gangling limbs accentuated by plain suits, worn one size too large, flopping about; and a most expressive comic face, highlighted by an impish grin. His characters are generally down-to-earth urban survivors, relying on their wits, motormouths, and low-level scams to get by, often remaining amazingly ignorant of the mayhem around them caused either directly or indirectly by their actions or inactions.
A chance meeting at an Italian film festival led Jim Jarmusch to cast Benigni in 1986's Down by Law, his U.S. debut. The comic nearly stole the film as an Italian tourist—thrown into a New Orleans jail cell occupied by two deadbeats (John Lurie and Tom Waits)—who knows little English but tries to engage the others in conversation (Benigni himself knew little English at the beginning of the film's production). Even better was his second film for Jarmusch, Night on Earth, where his gifts for monologue and improvisation shine as the taxi driver in the "Rome" episode who confesses his sex life to a priest—pumpkins, sheep, and sister-in-law, all. The initial scene in the episode where Benigni drives around Rome keeping himself (and the audience) amused with his banter is classic. In Italy he achieved superstardom in the late 1980s and early 1990s through three consecutive box-office blockbusters: Il piccolo diavolo, with co-star Walter Matthau as a priest whose life is made chaotic by Benigni's devil; Johnny Stecchino, where a bus driver is mistaken for a Mafiaso to comic effect, with Benigni enacting both roles, the former much more effectively than the latter; and Il mostro, his best film to date, another case of mistaken identity in which Benigni's witless errand boy Loris is suspected, through a hilarious sequence of misinterpreted police videotape, of being a mass murderer.
Along the way, Benigni was cast against type in Federico Fellini's final film, La Voce della Luna, which has yet to be released in the United States. Benigni has, however, become a favorite of the American art-house crowd through his Jarmusch films and his self-directed efforts. Such successes led to his ill-fated debut in a major U.S. film as Jacques Clouseau's son in the box-office failure, Son ofthe Pink Panther, where his best efforts are undermined by an inferior script (his "Wasn't that fun!" at the end is a truly embarrassing line).
Benigni remains immensely popular in Italy, evidenced by the huge crowds that attended his mock political rallies in 1995 and 1996, where he skewered one of his favorite targets—politicians. One would hope that in the future his great talent could be exposed to a larger North American audience—perhaps through a collaboration with an American director, given Benigni's self-acknowledged limitations in that area. In any event, there is no doubt that Benigni will in the not-too-distant future be added to the pantheon of comedic giants to which rising film comedians are compared.
—David E. Salamie