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Interview: Roberto Benigni
Adrian Wootton (AW): Before we talk about Life is Beautiful, I want to go back to your early career and how you became a comedian. You grew up in Tuscany, and am I right in thinking that you started out by working in a circus? Can you tell us about your experience?
Roberto Benigni: Thank you. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be here! Thank you Adrian. So, how are you?
AW: I'm very well.
RB: I like to be here because this is my first question and answer session in London and my heart is in turmoil. I'm flabbergasted. It's a gift to me, and I have to thank everybody.
AW: Thank you.
RB: And now I'd like to answer... I forget the question!
AW: How did you become a comedian?
RB: Thank you... it was a very simple question! And a good question because it's referring to my life so I know this!... Anyway, I'd really like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for inviting me here, and for you people to be here, and for this manifestation of love! Really I can feel it. This is a gift. And I throw back all the love, multiplied a hundred times for everybody....Thank you! Now, how did I become a comedian?
Well, I grew up in Tuscany in a very poor family. My father was a farmer and my mother was a farmer, but, my childhood was very good. I am very grateful for my childhood, because it was full of gladness and good humanity.
My father was never there. He was always out looking for a job. I had three sisters, elder than me - only one bed, and I slept all my childhood with four women, my mother and my three sisters, so that was very good! Six people sleeping in the same bed. I can remember it all vividly. My memory is wonderful, wonderfully vivid.
Then, when I was very little, we moved to another town and it was then that I started to study. My mother brought me magicians and witches, because I was very ugly, really revolting. So she thought somebody had put a spell on me - this is the truth - so she made me drink some horrible terrifying potions, for year. Then a priest came to our house, a very, very tall priest, and I was sick at the time, after drinking all that stuff, and he said to me, "Do you feel something, my little boy?" And, in order to be interesting, I said, "Yes, I feel a lot." So he told my mother, "This boy is coming with me, he's going to priest school. I will make him a good priest." So, when I was about twelve, I went to study in Florence in a very good priest school.
There is a Machiavellian saying, 'there are people who know everything, but that is all they know.' This has stayed in my mind for a long time.
So I went away and then, in 1964, there was a great flood in Florence. I remember the scene, because it was really like a Fellini movie, what with all the water and the screaming... And I ran away, because it was my last moment of freedom. I ran back home to my mother, completely wet, and I said, "I don't feel anymore!"
By now, my mother was very poor. We were living in a wonderful room, with horses at the other side.
AW: A stable?
RB: It wasn't exactly a stable - we didn't sleep with the horses of course - it was near the stable, from the window we could see the horses. But, I remember it because it was very warm, wonderfully warm. I have a good memory of this. Then there was a circus, a little circus, called Drolin. I didn't have enough money to go in, but every evening I'd creep in and watch the magicians, and the clowns, the trapeze artists and the animals. It was just a little circus - only one lion. The magician told me to come in each evening to watch the circus free, and in the end he said to my mother, "I need this guy, this boy. I need an assistant." I was very happy, and of course, my mother was very happy because it was one less mouth to feed. "Go, Robertino, bye, bye," she said, "go."
I was full happy-full. It was very easy, as well. Every evening I'd go on as the magician's assistant and pretend to be hypnotised. Like he'd say, "You are in the desert, in the Sahara, it is very hot." And I'd start to take my clothes off, and once I reached my underwear he'd say, "Oh! you're in the North Pole, "and I'd put them on again. It was very idiotic, but very popular, people liked it a lot. And also, there was the fire trick. With a strange powder and cream, you could set fire to my hand and it wouldn't hurt. And once, he didn't do it too good and my hand was really on fire! There is still a scar there. And I escaped again. My mother said, "Now stop, I don't like this!"
So I was saved first by the water and then by the fire. By then it was very later, February or March, so I saw another priest, a teacher in a female school - in Italy Catholic priests are everywhere - and he told me that I could try applying to secretarial school. So I decided to go. In my class there were 40 women and me. Which was very good! But then I was very shy - 40 women and just me. It was really like another Fellini scene. And I remember this as a wonderful world. This period was really a very wonderful everything.
My father, who loves Tuscan tradition, wanted me to try improvising poems, like Ariosto and Spenser. Rhyming verses and improvising the whole thing according to the character the audience gives you. And my father was completely in love with this, and he told me, try, see if you are able to do this - because my father loves these mystical things. He told me to get into it, but the youngest after me was 75 years old! It was an ancient tradition.
Anyway, I tried and I introduced new things - like dirty words and modern words, and they loved me, because it was different and this was a very classical thing. We call it a fight in poems...Very interesting. We did a tour, and a director came from Rome - luckily he's dead now - and he told me to try acting in underground theatre - this was in the early 1970s, '70 or '71. He told me to get into the avant-garde theatre in Rome. I did, and you know, it was a wonderful moment for me. We did Shakespeare's Hamlet where the part of Ophelia was acted by a duck, or Romeo and Juliet, with Romeo as a bottle. Some of it was joking, but some of the ideas were real masterpieces.
Then I met Giuseppi Bertolucci, who was a wonderful director. I told him all my stories from my little village, and we worked together on a monologue about this, and it was a resounding success in Italy. And they came from far and wide to watch, and then we were offered to write a movie called The Building Where I Love You. This was my first movie. So, this is the answer to your first question.
AW: You've mentioned Fellini a couple of times and you actually got to work with him in 1979. What was that like?
RB: Fellini belongs to nature. I wrote in an Italian newspaper when he died that the world without Fellini was for me as if olive oil was dead. Something that is absolutely natural, that belongs to the natural. For me, Fellini was like a watermelon. It is there. A watermelon cannot die. Fellini and Bunuel changed my life for me, they are my favourites. If it is true that movies are dreams, both of them, Fellini and Bunuel were shooting in a dream way. I don't know what gift the sky gave to them, but they shot in the dream way, in the style of dreams. I am grateful to them, because now the world looks different to me.
I observed Fellini a lot when I made The Voice of the Moon with him. There was something fascinating about him, he was really a Mama to me. It was like staying with an oak tree. There is a legend that he is improvising when he shoots, but I don't think he was improvising. Before shooting, everybody is silent, because the maestro is shooting. No flies even buzz. But once he says "Action", everybody is screaming. And the actors are acting in this complete mess. You feel like you are making love to the film. This is completely the opposite to me. And then, he could change everything during the dubbing, because he liked to dub the movie. In one scene where I would say, "can I have a drink of water?", he would say, "now you are saying, I love you very much!" He liked to change everything. He was really a magician. For a second time, I was the assistant of a magician! Fellini really changed my life.
AW: And did he inspire you? I know it was only a couple of years after that that you directed your first film. Was it working with Fellini that made you want to become a film director yourself, rather than just an actor and a performer, or had you always wanted to be a director?
RB: When I first saw a Fellini movie? When I first saw a Fellini movie, I came out of the movie theatre and decided to become a lawyer! I thought to myself, it's impossible to make something so beautiful! No, it helped me a lot, because he's a benefactor. What is the world without people like Fellini?
For 20 years I knew Fellini, and every time he finished a movie he would phone me and say, "Roberto, I would like to shoot a movie with you, I need a test. Do some acting please" And he would dress me as a woman and say "act something please." And then he would say, "How old are you?" So I tell him, 30 years old. "Oh, I'm sorry, I need someone who is about 70 years old, I am sorry, I made a mistake! I need a woman, thank you anyway!" For twenty years I tested with him, but he'd tell me, "I need a dog, or a woman, or an older actor."
He really wanted to make Pinocchio, which is like to touch the divine comedy, but he never did. There are two ideas that I never actually realises in my career, making Pinocchio with Fellini, and making a film about Saint Francis with Michelangelo Antonioni, who is the Homer of Italian movie makers. Saint Francis was really the clown of god, because he would smile down at the dead, laughing at the pain and the sorrow and all the tragedy we have. Saint Francis to me is like Pinocchio - the biggest fool, the biggest buffoon. So we started to write it, we disagreed a little on how to write it - our styles are so different - which I regret because then Antonioni got sick and we couldn't finish it. And he was another genius, just like Fellini, although the two men had completely different styles.
AW: Before we talk about Life is Beautiful, I just wanted to ask you about comedians and the influence of other comic actors and performers. I read an interview with you in which you talked about Charlie Chaplin. Well, you actually talk about Charlie Chaplin's arse, but I wondered if you tell us something, well about Chaplin's arse, but generally about the influence other comedians have had on you. In terms of your own style of comedy, who had the most profound influence on you?
RB: My general approach to movies goes back to the time after the flood in my little village. I was with my two sisters and, as with the circus, I didn't have enough money to go in, so we waited for hours and hours, and then at the end they'd give us a slap and say, okay, go in for the last 10 minutes of the movies.
The first movie I saw - and I don't know if it influenced me - was Ben Hur. We watched it outside in a corn field, and it ran backwards, so the first movie I ever saw was Ben Hur backwards. In my memory Ben Hur was always Ruh Neb! Charlton Heston was my favourite actor, and William Wilder, what a wonderful director!
The second movie, and my first real movie, was very melodramatic. I cried so much! It was Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life. What a movie! Oh, Mama Mia, all the audience crying! I told the story to my mother, and my mother said, "Never!"
My mother and my father went to the cinema for the first time when I made my first movie in 1978. They were 60 years old. They paid for the ticket and they stayed from four in the afternoon until midnight. They were used to the dance hall, where they could stay till it closed. They watched the movie four times. They liked it very much.
Then I discovered the classics. The roots of modern comedy are in Shakespearean theatre, especially the early works of Shakespeare.
And I loved Toto [a clown from Naples] because it was comic cinema that always scared me. I remember in the circus learning that the clown was the prince, the high prince. I always thought that the high prince was the lion or the magician, but the clown is the most important. He has to know how to win friends, he has to know how to play instruments, how to do body gags. I discovered the quality of clowns. But I was scared because of the make-up. When he comes up close to you the smile becomes green and I was really impressed by this. So when I saw Toto for the first time, he scared me. Toto was a clown from Naples, and in Naples I saw a vision. Behind Toto's shoulder under the makeup I could see the mask of the dead. That is why he is so strong, and such a wonderful character, because he can scare you. This is not comedy, or irony, or slap-stick gag, or situation comedy, Toto is a pornographic clown. Humour is erotic. If you see Chaplin for example, or Buster Keaton or Stan Laurel, they seldom have close ups on their faces. If you have a close up of a real clown then you see the mask and it can scare you. But, why I mentioned Chaplin's arse is because the clown hardly ever has close-ups on his face, it starts on his arse instead. The body is comedy. It becomes low. And in the low is the highest art.
I remember reading something in Napoleon's diary. Napoleon said that a general came to him, announcing some tragic disaster, some lost battle, and the first thing that Napoleon said to him was, please, sit down. So the general sat down clumsily, with his sword and his armour, and there was his body and instantly, as Napoleon describes it, he has comedy. And I could understand that. He was relaxing his mind to the tragedy.
AW: We should move on and talk about Life is Beautiful. This is your fifth film as a director, and it's very different from all your other films as actor and director. It's an extremely powerful subject. It's also a comedy - or it has comedy in it. What made you at this time in your career want to make a film that deals with the holocaust in the way it does? What inspired you?
RB: I think the Holocaust belongs to everybody, and when you read about it, you're not the same man as you were before. This film was not directly inspired by books or by Primo Levi - who I had the chance to know personally, even though I didn't talk to him about the Holocaust.
In Italy, the country where fascism was born, we have a particular relation with the Holocaust, but as a turning point in history it belongs to everybody in the world. It is a part of humanity.
I was thinking about my next movie, with my screen writer, and when you're thinking about your next movie it's like composing melodies. I'm not saying that I was composing a melody, but when you are in this frame of mind ideas come to you naturally. I wasn't thinking, "now I need something different, now I need a career boost," I was just thinking freely. Sometimes with my screen writer I improvise a monologue like an ancient Roman or like a Russian woman, or, I don't know, a Spanish dog, something by accident. And then suddenly, we were writing another kind of movie, very light and funny.
And then I was improvising - suddenly out of the blue - a monologue of a man in a concentration camp. But I am a comedian so was just improvising, telling the contrary. I am in an extreme situation - in the most dreadful, terrifying place in the world, and I am pretending it is wonderful. I am talking to a little boy, saying, "Are you happy, have you seen your father, he is thinking about you, ah, that's wonderful!" And it was really touching.
My screen writer said that we must think about this. And I felt this idea, the idea of putting my body as a comedian in an extreme situation. I fell in love with this idea. My duty is to try to reach beauty. Cinema is emotion. When you laugh you cry. And in this moment I had an emotion and it is my duty to follow it. The crux of the matter is that I try and reach beauty, poetry. This is the goal. But, I was afraid.
I couldn't rest after having this idea. I couldn't sleep, so I thought I must be brave. It is like when you're in love and you must be brave, and naked. So I think I am brave, doing this interview in English as well, eh? I was following this bright spark, a star in the sky that I was watching.
AW: And what happened when you took the script and the idea to the financiers initially and said I want to make a film about this? Were people sceptical, or did people say, yes, this is a great idea? Did you get a lot of support in Italy when you said you wanted to make this film or was it hard to drum up support?
RB: Well I must say that in Italy I can do more or less what I want because my past movies were such a success. But some people asked me what I was doing making such a film about the holocaust. The thing is, an artist has to operate in front of his audience, not behind. If you are predictable then you are lost. Anyway, I was honest with myself. I loved this idea and I couldn't stop. I wanted to make my contribution to the holocaust. This was just a movie, and movies don't change the world, fortunately, but I still wanted to put everything into this movie. I always do this, but especially here, I put my everything into this film.
Of course, I was afraid because there is a prejudice against comedians doing something like this. The holocaust was such a impressionable tragedy, and so the reaction was understandable. Some people think, this can never be treated as a comedy, it is such a total tragedy, but this is not necessarily true. I do feel that sometimes only comedians can reach the peaks of a tragedy. It's like Dante's Inferno where it says, there is no greater sorrow than thinking upon a happy time in misery. That's why the second half of this movie is so tragic because we're thinking about the first half where it is full of joy and laughter.
In the second part, I use a gag, the lowest gag in comedy, like the fake translation, of me dressed as a woman - a man dressed as a woman is the lowest slap-stick joke of the clowns - but in this case, me dressed as a woman is really scary, it is the very peak of tragedy, really terrifying. Also, the scene with the fake translation is something that is not used just to be funny, it is used to save the life of my son. That is why you can't laugh. You laugh, but your heart is broken in a hundred little pieces, it has exploded. There is no sentimentalism because it is not needed. As the poet said, oblivion is the deepest part of memory. No one can forget this. We know very deeply what has happened. So, instead, I stay very far away and just make little signs to show what is happening.
In Italy, they asked me, what are you doing making this film. And I said, okay, maybe I will lose some of my audience, but I have to do something that I love and believe in. I was afraid too, though. I sent the script to the Jewish community in Milan and they told me that this couldn't happen, this is impossible, that theologically this is incorrect, but I'm an artist, not a documentary maker or a historian. I know that there are bits in the first part of the movie that are completely invented. A Jewish man wouldn't have married a Gentile woman in this period, it was completely impossible. It was impossible to sing an opera in French, Mussolini forbade it, so I know that these bits of anachronistic, but I did it on purpose. Just as I did it in the second half of the movie. I said maybe I will lose some of my audience, but I can't stop what I love.
Much to my astonishment, this film has given me the biggest success I've had in Italy. People have written me letters, I've been made an honourary Jew, I don't know how to thank people enough for their reaction.
Questions from the audience
Question one What would you say to those orthodox Jewish people who criticise your movie for injecting ridicule into the Holocaust?
RB: I have to say that it's only a few people, and I repeat that I respect them, because this is a huge tragedy and I respect their reaction to it, whatever it may be. Naturally I don't understand it is a different opinion of style and because there have been many movies about the holocaust and this is the first time a comedian has approached it. It's obvious that the reaction will be strong. But I don't understand when they accuse me of ridiculing the Holocaust because the second half of the movie is real tragedy. I can't answer the question exactly. I'm very sorry about this, and I do respect it, but I don't understand it. When they justify their criticism by claiming this a fascist comedy, or a negationist, this is terrible.
The simplicity of the movie should speak for itself. First of all, it's a love story. I am not telling my son the truth, this is a game, because this is the only way for a five-year-old to go through this tragedy without being killed or having his brain explode. So the simplicity of the film protects the innocent, and it is the most human thing in it, the purity is the thing bringing us closer to God.
I think that only the testimony of survivors, only documentaries, only the majesty of the truth can explain what really happened in the holocaust. Primo Levi himself said, I wrote this chapter in If This is a Man about an Auschwitz survivor 10 times and I doubt what I am doing even though I am a witness and I am telling the truth, but he was searching for the style. So, in a way, even Primo Levi was betraying the truth, because when you are creating you must betray it in a way.
I am not a survivor, and of course, I respect the memory, and I agree when they say only silence can explain and I really respect this way. Also Adorno said, after Auschwitz there can be no poetry, but there is a contradiction, because life itself is the contradiction. Adorno himself continued to write poems, even though he said this. Now it's like the verse of a poem, and when you say only silence, you are saying something. Needless to say, I respect this tragedy, but I think in order to show proper respect the best thing to do is stay far away from the reality. I am not able to show violence directly, like Spielberg or Scorsese, my style is to stay far away, to evoke the horror. We do not see directly, but sometimes, to evoke can be more horrifying? There is an Italian verse that goes, 'absence sharpens presence'. When I read the books about Auschwitz, I had to stop because the details were unbearable, unrepresentable. Only the majesty of the truth can do them justice, so I stay far away. You know we are in an extermination camp, but we don't see the face of the abyss, we just know it's there.
There is an anecdote with Franz Kafka. Once a friend of his, Max Brod, invited him to sleep in his house. He didn't know the house so when he got there he went into the wrong room where Max's father was sleeping. And Kafka said to him, "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to disturb. Consider me a dream." So consider this movie a dream. I don't want to bother anybody with this movie, it's just a dream.
Question two Is comedy a survival mechanism for you?
RB: I would like to be like Guido, the protagonist of the movie, because for me he is a model as a father and as a man. For me, in his wife, he has the biggest gift from the sky, so I think I am the most fortunate man in the world for sharing this. I would like to thank Nicoletta Braschi [Benigni's wife] publicly because she is here and has really helped me a lot during the movie as an actress. I have to thank her because in writing the movie I gave her all the most difficult and tragic things which were unbearable for me and impossible to act. She was able to do this and I have to thank her deeply and that is a wonderful gift that the sky gave to me, giving me this wonderful actress. So in these two things [the comic gift and having this woman] I would like to be like Guido in the movie. I try. I don't know if I am able to make miracles like Guido.
Question three Is there any connection between The Great Dictator and Life is Beautiful?
RB: Yes, of course. Everything that comedians do owe something to Charlie Chaplin, whether directly or indirectly because he is the prince of everybody. But in this case it was not only connected to The Great Dictator but also to The Kid, because it is a story about protecting this little kid. Maybe it should be called The Kid Dictator or The Great Kid. But Chaplin did this movie just before [the Holocaust]. It is a masterpiece, but now it is impossible to joke with Hitler because we know what he did. Personally I think it is impossible to laugh at him. Chaplin himself said, "If I had known what Hitler did, what happened, I would have done my movie differently." I understand that deeply and profoundly. He did a lot of slapstick - well, 'slapstick' in quotation marks - with Mussolini and Hitler, it is really cake in the face, but I remember looking at this scene and being afraid. I was wondering what was happening in the brain of Chaplin because it was out of control, billions of gags, like somebody running.
I remember this movie with pain, especially the end, where it is so sentimental, which I like. I usually hate sentimentalism, but with Chaplin it's different. It's a cliche, but now I'm really in love with the end of this movie.
There is a direct homage to The Great Dictator in my movie. My number is the same as the number of Chaplin in The Great Dictator - 3797. There is also a homage to Lubitsch, To Be or Not To Be, which is another great movie, a masterpiece. At the beginning of that movie there is a little boy and the fake man gives him a tank as a gift, and I used the same tank, for the Lubitsch touch.
Question four I didn't like the movie because I think that people would get a confusing representation of history from it and I feel that you have a responsibility in that respect. Also I felt that the movie was unnecessarily sentimental at the end. How do you respond to that criticism?
RB: I respect the opinion. It's not the first time I've heard it. The way we watch the movie is luckily so different each time, giving us a different emotion each time, but sometimes we lose the first way, the simple way, to watch the movie. This is the biggest tragedy in our memories. It takes the place of Dante's hell in our brains, but I must answer the first thing you said. Firstly, the concentration camp in the film is not set in any precise place, it is not Italy or Germany. We suppose it's Germany, because the protagonists are speaking in German, but I didn't want to say we are in Auschwitz or Berkenau, because everybody could tell me it was not like this. I wanted to be completely free, but also to have respect.
For example, we know that there was no concentration camp with mountains, so I found this location with mountains on purpose so that it was clearly invented. This is not a documentary, and it is not a theory about the Holocaust.
Secondly, I am very sorry that you accused me of sentimentalism, especially after I repeated, I hate, I hate, I hate sentimentalism. I worked hard to avoid sentimentalism. When I had the idea, a father with a kid in danger, I thought, terrible, nothing worse, absolute schmaltz, honey! And I said, we are lost. I hate the idea of a kid in danger, it's the worse, it's blackmail... So it was very difficult. I almost stopped the idea because I thought it was going to be impossible to avoid sentimentalism. But, I never cry with my son, I never tell him to remember, don't hate people, etc. I am very dry, cold, jokey. I kiss him just at the end, because the narrative needs it, just a little sign, but at the same time you can see I am the most loving and warm father a kid can have. I am never self indulgent. I could be, but I worked to get the balance right. More than this there is an error in the narration, less than this there is an opinion I don't want. Don't over-analyse the movie because the story is very simple. We wrote the script a hundred times, and gave the kid a kid's words, rather than a man's words. We wanted to make it simple. But we need to show the truth.
It's like your poet, John Keats, said: it is not beautiful what is true, it is true what is beautiful. This is different. If you are making something beautiful it becomes true. It's not because this is a true story that it's a beautiful story, it could be a terrifying story. That is a very simple saying.
This is a fiction. There is a French writer called Celine. He said that when you put a plank of wood in water it becomes distorted, so to show the real piece of wood straight you need to distort it first and then it becomes straight. This is the way of the artist. I can tell you that if you show a true story, you don't believe it, you have to manipulate it. This is the nature of the artist - to betray the truth. These are dreams, because the language is different. Otherwise we are just imitating, and imitation is different.
Question five You seem to rely on narrative in your art, what would you do if you didn't have narrative to rely on?
RB: That's a very interesting question and a question of style. I am a real story teller, I love to tell stories. It's the oldest profession in the world - maybe before prostitution - so I can hardly imagine not telling stories. In my movie there is a sort of homage to silence, there is a lot of interior rhyme, a lot of things that come back and make their own story. But I find it hard to answer the question. I wish Adrian would help me!
AW: I think you answered that question quite brilliantly, and rather than me trying to help you anymore - I think I'd get even more confused - I want to ask everybody to give Roberto a big hand and say thank you. [applause]
RB: Thank you for your love. Thank you!