At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Roberto Benigni - Oscar winner

How Life is Beautiful made Tuscan actor and director famous



Roberto Benigni
Roberto Benigni
Roberto Benigni, whose performance in the 1997 film Life is Beautiful won him an Oscar for Best Actor, was born on this day in 1952 in rural Tuscany, around 20km south of Arezzo.

The Academy Award, for which he beat off strong competition from Nick Nolte (Affliction) and Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan) among others, put him in the company of Anna Magnani (1955) and Sophia Loren (1961) as one of just three Italian winners of best actor or actress.

Benigni, who also directed Life is Beautiful, had won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film earlier in the awards ceremony, which delighted him so much he famously clambered on to the back of the seats of audience members in the row in front of his to lead the applause before stepping up to the stage to receive the award from Sophia Loren.

When Helen Hunt called out his name for Best Actor - the first since Loren to win the most coveted prize with a foreign language film - he began his acceptance speech by apologizing for having "used up all my English", before proceeding to deliver another joyously emotional expression of gratitude.

Benigni was born in the hamlet of Manciano la Misericordia, near the walled town of Castiglion Fiorentino.  His family moved when he was six years old to Vergaio, a village near Prato, to which he made reference in his speech, thanking his parents, Luigi and Isolina, for "the gift of poverty", despite which he had a happy childhood and believes shaped his character and made him appreciate his good fortune all the more.

Roberto Benigni with his wife and co-star, Nicoletta Braschi
Roberto Benigni with his wife
and co-star, Nicoletta Braschi
He based Life is Beautiful, the story of a Jewish Italian bookshop owner who uses his comic imagination to shield his son from the horrors of internment in a Nazi concentration camp, in part on the experiences of his father, who spent almost three years in the Belsen concentration camp in Germany.

Written in collaboration with Vincenzo Cerami, the film was attacked by some critics for presenting an unrealistic picture of the Holocaust which contained too little suffering, and suggested that "laughing at everything" was disrespectful to the millions of victims.

However, others praised Benigni for having the artistic daring and skill to create such a sensitive comedy against a background of dark, unparalleled tragedy.

Before the huge fame the movie brought him, Benigni, who was raised as a Catholic and was an altar boy in his local church, had enjoyed relatively modest success in his acting and directing career.

After studying initially to become a priest, a path he abandoned after the school he attended in Florence was damaged in the floods of 1966, he developed a fascination with a circus that was playing near his home and was offered work as a magician's assistant.

He had his first taste of theatre in Prato before moving to Rome, where he appeared in avant-garde theatre and became popular for his improvisation of epic poems, such as those of Ludovico AriostoEdmund Spenser and Dante Alighieri.

It was in Rome that he met Giuseppe Bertolucci - brother of Bernardo - who cast him in a film entitled Berlinguer, I love You, that appealed to his Communist sympathies.  Enrico Berlinguer was the leader of the Italian Communist Party.

See Roberto Benigni's acceptance speech for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar




He appeared in a number of TV shows directed by Renzo Arbore, one of which was banned by the censors, and worked on films with Bernardo Bertolucci and Federico Fellini.

The first of his nine films as a director was Tu mi turbi (You disturb me), a comedy that satirizes religion and the banking system.  He also starred in the film opposite Nicoletta Braschi, an actress from Cesena with whom he became romantically involved.  They have been married since 1991.  Braschi also appears in Life is Beautiful as the wife of Benigni's character.

Benigni's two films after Life is Beautiful - Pinocchio and The Tiger and the Snow - played well with home audiences but were less well received outside Italy and in the 11 years since the latter he has not made another film, although he hinted recently that he has a new project in mind.

Roberto Benigni on stage in his touring  one-man show, TuttiDante
Roberto Benigni on stage in his touring
one-man show, TuttiDante
He has remained successful on stage and television with his 90-minute one-man show TuttiDante, in which he has returned to his love of improvisatory poetry - a particularly Tuscan art form for which his father was an enthusiast.

During the show, Benigni combines current events with his memories of the past in a passionate interpretation of Dante's Divine Comedy.

No stranger to controversy, apart from his role in the Abore TV show that was taken off the air, he attracted headlines for appearing to call Pope John Paul II by an impolite name, for lifting a startled Enrico Berlinguer off his feet in an embrace at a Communist rally, and then for gatecrashing a TV news bulletin reporting on a protest against Silvio Berlusconi in which he had taken part, removing his shirt, draping it around the shoulders if the presenter and declaring (falsely) that Berlusconi had resigned.

Travel tip:

Arezzo, where much of Life is Beautiful is filmed, is a city in eastern Tuscany famous among other things for the frescoes of the artist, Piero della Francesco, in the 13th century church of San Francesco.  The Legend of the True Cross, painted between 1452 and 1466, is considered to be one of Italy’s greatest fresco cycles.  Arezzo is also the birthplace of the 14th century Renaissance poet, Francesco Petrarca, widely known by his English name, Petrarch.

Hotels in Arezzo from Hotels.com

The view through one of the archways in Giorgio Vasari's loggia
The view through one of the archways
in Giorgio Vasari's loggia
Travel tip:

Apart from its 13th century walls, the Tuscan hill town of Castiglion Fiorentino, of which Manciano la Misericordia, Benigni's birthplace, is a frazione (parish), is notable for a handsome nine-arch loggia designed by the 16th century artist and architect, Giorgio Vasari, along one side of the Piazza del Municipio, which offers a beautiful vista looking out over the Val di Chio below the town.  Vasari, who worked for the Medici family in Florence, designed the loggia at the Palazzo degli Uffizi and the Vasari Corridor, which connects the Uffizi with the Medici residence across the River Arno at Palazzo Pitti and includes the covered Ponte Vecchio bridge.

Hotels in Castiglion Fiorentino from Hotels.com

More reading:




(Top photo of Benigni by Gorup de Besanez CC BY-SA 4.0)
(Second photo of Benigni by Georges Biard CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of Vasari's loggia view by Silviapitt CC BY-SA 3.0)


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