‘Life Is Beautiful’ co-writer Vincenzo Cerami: ‘Seek the beauty and the horror’

Vincenzo Cerami, an Italian writer who coauthored the screenplay of “Life Is Beautiful,” Roberto Benigni’s award-winning tragicomedy about a father’s quest to save his son’s life and innocence amid the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp, died July 17 in Rome. He was 72.

His death was widely reported by Italian media. The cause could not immediately be confirmed.

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.


Roberto Beligni, left, kisses Italian actress Nicoletta Braschi in the movie “Life Is Beautiful.” (AP Photo/Sergio Strizzi)

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.”

“Sentimentality is a kind of fascism too, robbing us of judgment and moral acuity,” Richard Schickel wrote in Time magazine, “and it needs to be resisted. ‘Life Is Beautiful’ is a good place to start.”

Mr. Cerami was insistent.

“In cinema, in art, people can’t watch more than 10 minutes of evil because in the end it becomes horror,” Mr. Cerami once said. “You have to seek the beauty and the horror.”

Mr. Cerami was born in Rome on Nov. 2, 1940, making him about the same age as the fictional Giosue. When he was a boy, his schoolteachers included Pasolini, before Pasolini became renowned as an intellectual. Mr. Cerami studied physics before becoming an apprentice to his old teacher, rising to be assistant director of works including “The Hawks and the Sparrows” (1966).

“I owe everything to Pasolini,” Mr. Cerami said, according to the Italian news agency ANSA. “Without him I wouldn’t have been able to look at the world with pity and severity combined.”

Mr. Cerami’s first novel, “An Average Little Man” (1976), was adapted for the screen by Mario Monicelli and vaulted Mr. Cerami to international attention.

His early work with Benigni included “The Little Devil” (1988) and the popular comedy “Johnny Stecchino” (1991).

More recently, they worked together on “Pinocchio” (2002), an adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s fairy tale, and “The Tiger and the Snow” (2005) , a love story set partly in wartorn Iraq.

His first marriage, to the American actress Mimsy Farmer, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife, Graziella Chiarcossi; a daughter from his first marriage, actress Aisha Cerami; and a son from his second marriage, film director Matteo Cerami.

Andra Bucci, an Italian who survived Auschwitz as a child and was featured this year in a Washington Post Style section story, said in an interview that she recognized her story in “Life Is Beautiful.” She added that she believes the film might allow young people to begin to understand the Holocaust.

“You must be careful, you must tiptoe. You can’t go immediately into the tragedy,” she said. “A child wouldn’t be able to go forward in the story.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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