Life (with a child) is Beautiful.
Roberto Benigni won Best Actor for his role in “Life is Beautiful”. He was the first actor to win an Oscar for a performance in a foreign language film since Sophia Loren won for “Two Women” almost forty years before. His film received seven Academy Award nominations and won Best Foreign Language Film, Best Music and Original Dramatic Score. Roberto Benigni famously received his awards in exuberant style.
Roberto Benigni is really busy in Rome. He is unsure if he should leave for Paris or not. He needs to go try on costumes, but he wants to come back to Rome and his wife Nicoletta as soon as possible.
They are saying your film is a masterpiece. Do you agree?
I like this film a lot. I made something that is really really simple. I am very grateful for those that speak well of my film. For those that say that it is a masterpiece, well, if I had their addresses, I’d send each and every one ten kilos of the sweetest apples.
But the critic Fofi has issues with the film. He says that the first part is more beautiful than the second part, which deals with concentration camps.
If he has an issue with the film, that is still satisfying because Fofi has a brilliant mind. He is a very generous person. Every time I read something he’s written, I die of laughter.
Why does he prefer the first part of the film?
It’s nice that he has a preference, but the film is a single entity. One part can’t exist without the other. It’s the same person. The same thing. The situation changes in the second part.
Are you and your wife as in love in real life as you are in the film?
Ah, amore! When I think about Nicoletta, I leap, leap with joy like I am in the fields going from one valley to the next. I lie on the grass satisfied. This, perhaps, is an artistic interpretation, but it’s true in life as well.
Did you woo her the way you did in the film?
Excuse me but here we are entering into territory that is full of all kinds of wonderful things, but they are things each of us delicately and jealously keeps for ourselves. I can, however, tell you that from the first scene of the film, Nicoletta Braschi looked at my character with such a powerful feeling of love that I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed with emotion. She’s a memorable actress.
Are you a clown?
I would really like to be one. I’d kiss anyone who called me one if this were really the case. The clown is the greatest expression of someone who brings well wishes. Being a clown is bliss. It’s like describing a cloud at a quarter past three in the afternoon.
They say you are a crafty little devil. Is that true?
Oh God no. No. I don’t like people who are cunning. Not at all. Who is that sly fox that called me a crafty little devil?
Your character in “Life is Beautiful” – the Jewish man Guido Orefice – who is he?
He’s a Jewish man who has assimilated. I tried to create a character who was a Jewish man during the Italian racial laws, which was a truly scary, indescribable, and despicable time. But he’s not a practicing Jew or a serious Jew. He’s a kind, honest, and gentle Jew. I wanted to highlight the immeasurable injustice that took the Jews to a frightening and repugnant inferno. I wanted to highlight the folly of the neo-Fascism that picked on a sweet, delicate dragonfly of a man. Why did they pick on him, I asked myself.
Do you feel a bit Jewish?
When asked if he was Jewish, Chaplin was said to respond, “I’m afraid I don’t have that honour.”
Was Chaplin a maestro for you?
He’s a maestro for pizza makers, barbers, woodworkers, and even for the Elkanns. If he hadn’t been, so many things wouldn’t have come to be.
What about Fellini?
When he died, it was as if some kind of basic necessity no longer existed. As if bread or oil had disappeared.
Would he have liked your latest film?
There’s a little bit of his touch. When somebody stands under an oak tree, he may find himself left with a few acorns.
They say you have very strong political leanings.
Well isn’t that a big surprise?! I say that I am open about the people I love, the actors I choose, and everyone knows who my partner is. Each of us is proud of his or her choices, even to name the restaurants where we go to eat. Why should I hide my political leanings? I put more trust in some than others. What is the problem with that?
What did those on the right say about your film?
At the beginning, they said negative things. Then a journalist – Renato Farina – said amazing things. A small story that thrilled and touched me. I’d like to thank him publicly.
Do you place a lot of importance on criticism?
I place a lot of importance on affections and without affections, we are dead. I am sad if someone doesn’t like my film. A clown will die without laughs or emotions.
Did you expect so much success?
I really hoped they would love the film. Especially because this doesn’t have the same impact as a comical film full of easy laughs. It’s a kind of a unique film.
Today they are comparing your box office numbers with those of Pieraccioni. Does that bother you?
No. Not at all. Pieraccioni is so likeable. How can one not love him? We aren’t in competition at all.
What did Rabbi Toaff say to you?
He’s such a gentle man. He saw the film, and he had his arm, which was in a cast, up to his neck. He was really moved, and he hugged me and told me “bravo.” He’s a person with an enviable sense of joy, an extraordinary person, and he was so incredibly warm to me. He truly touched me.
What about the little boy?
Nicoletta chose that little boy. Out of 2,000, she said, “That’s him.” And we didn’t look for any others.
And what about a child for the two of you?
I would like to have more than one.
Are Italians racist?
No. But every country has its issues. Believe me, eradicating racism is difficult. It’s an evil plant that has roots that can’t be easily eradicated. It takes a lot of time. It’s like a cesspool of the most vile and repugnant feelings. It’s a terrifying thing, but I don’t think that Italians are truly racist or offensive.
What do you hate the most?
The thing that terrifies me the most is when a human being is stripped of his dignity. Seeing someone stripped of his dignity is the thing I hate the most.
Do you think we are going through a down period?
No. It’s extraordinary. Perhaps I say it a bit foolishly, but it seems like an era that is full of amazing things, with great contradictions.
Do you laugh a lot in life as well?
Pope John XXIII said that a day without a smile is a lost day.
Are you really so optimistic?
I like the practice of optimism. Optimists are amazing people because it is difficult to be optimistic, and it’s less rewarding than being the opposite. Byron was a great poet. He was attractive, rich, and pessimistic. I was born ugly, small, and I’m not a great poet, but I am an optimist.
How do you handle such great success?
The amazing thing is that people love me, and I love those that love me.
Do you like being interviewed?
Well, yes, because when I’m being interviewed, I ask myself, “Why are they asking me this thing?” Then I would like to interview my interviewer.
What about Fellini’s “Interview”?
Look, any Fellini film is extraordinary. One goes in with 2,000 lire worth of things in his head and comes out with 18,000 lire worth, at worst.
And what about for you, Benigni?
I would like for it to be the same.
4 January 1998