A protege of Pier Paolo Pasolini, the revered Italian writer and director, Mr. Cerami was a poet, novelist and playwright who wrote or co-wrote the screenplays of more than 40 films. His greatest success by far in the United States by far was “Life Is Beautiful.”
Few viewers of the 1999 Oscars ceremony could forget the sight of Benigni, the film’s director and star, exuberantly clambering over theater seats to collect the Academy Award for best foreign language film. Benigni won the award for best actor; he and Mr. Cerami were nominated for best original screenplay.
Of Mr. Cerami’s numerous collaborations with Benigni, “Life Is Beautiful” was surely the most daring. In less than two hours, it presented tender romance, slapstick antics and the image, however brief, of a mountain of corpses — victims of Nazi slaughter.
Mr. Cerami and Benigni began discussing the film in the mid-1990s. Benigni, a Chaplinesque funnyman, wanted to express his comedy in an “extreme situation.” He could not imagine an environment more extreme than a concentration camp.
Benigni’s father was imprisoned in a Nazi camp and, to protect his children, related his experience with humor.
“I said to Roberto, ‘Strange — gaiety in a concentration camp?’ ” Mr. Cerami recalled. “But his father told his tales with a smile, because he couldn’t bear the misery and the nightmares and the memories.”
“Life Is Beautiful” introduces Benigni as Guido, a guileless sweetheart in love with Dora, an upper-crust signorina he greets as principessa. (She is played by Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni’s wife.)
Amid rising Fascist forces, the two marry and have a son, Giosue, played by Giorgio Cantarini. Guido, who is Jewish, is forced to explain to the boy the anti-Semitism in their town. When Giosue sees a sign declaring “No Jews or Dogs Allowed,” Guido suggests that at their family’s book shop, they ban spiders and Visigoths.
When the family is deported, Guido hides his son in the men’s barracks and convinces him that they have come to the concentration camp to compete in a game — in which the prize would be a life-sized armored tank.
“Points are lost three ways,” Guido announces before his wide-eyed boy and incredulous fellow inmates in a fabricated translation of Nazi orders. “One, if you cry. Two, if you want to see your mama. Three, if you’re hungry and want a snack.”
Guido carries the elaborate, exhausting and life-saving deception to the end.
Critics were divided about the film. “It dares to laugh in the face of the unthinkable,” Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times. “And because Mr. Benigni can be heart-rending without a trace of the maudlin, it works.”