Hell Is Beautiful? Benigni's Fired Up Over Dante's 'Inferno'

Dante's storytelling
Dante's storytelling "is so modern you jump off your seat -- special effects, he invented them!" says Roberto Benigni, winner of the Best Actor Oscar in 1999. (By Stefano Schirato)
By Sarah Delaney
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 17, 2007

ROME When he comes onstage, he resembles the Roberto Benigni that Americans came to know in 1999, the one who hopscotched on the backs of the chairs at the Oscars to claim his prize for "Life Is Beautiful." He runs in stage right, wearing the slightly goofy grin that shows up in most photographs, and starts in with lightning-quick banter that spears politicians, the pope and whoever else might be in the news that day.

But as the evening proceeds, the familiar rascal becomes earnest student, kindly professor and, finally, tragic actor who sheds believable tears to the verse of Dante Alighieri, father of Italian literature and unsurpassed hero for the Tuscan-born comic.

This is the other Roberto in his traveling show, called "Tutto Dante," an unlikely hit featuring the 14th-century "Inferno," which has been filling up theaters and sports arenas throughout Italy, "just like Bruce Springsteen," as Benigni says.

The idea to bring Dante, studied in all Italian middle and high schools, to popular venues comes from the 53-year-old Benigni's conviction that the Florentine poet (1265-1321) is thoroughly modern and that his personal quest is universal. "When you fall in love with Dante, you see that he is mysterious and popular all at once, like the universe, or like Bach -- simple and complex at the same time," he said in an interview.

"The Inferno," the first of the three-part allegory of a search for God (Hell, Purgatory, Paradise), is the most popular, Benigni said, "because it's human, it's deep, it convinces us of how horrible we can be and we can recognize ourselves." But the "Paradiso," he says, "represents the highest that man can reach."

Benigni explains: "In Dante, there is mystery and poetry, it's entertaining, and he shows us all the human passions. But he doesn't say it from an old man's or moralist's viewpoint. He's not trying to teach us how to live because he wants to understand himself. And he tells us, humbly, that we, too, can make this journey. And it's a journey that is longer, more difficult, more innovative and more important than Armstrong's journey to the moon.

"In Dante we find all the techniques of cinema, with an extraordinary precision, depth and clarity," he adds. "He invented the rapid movement, all the techniques of narrating a story, of set design, and film editing like [American filmmaker D.W.] Griffith in 'Birth of a Nation,' but he invented it 700 years before. He is so modern you jump off your seat -- special effects, he invented them!"

Benigni's performance begins with the stand-up comic act. The one-man-show format deprives Benigni of a bag of tricks Italian television audiences know well -- grabbing the crotch or jumping into the arms of the variety show host/straight man while proclaiming, "Ti voglio bene," or, very loosely, "I love you." The absence of such trademark antics are generally forgiven when he doesn't stray too far from his roots in political satire (typically delivered with a bite but not a snarl).

His favorite targets, former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi and the Catholic Church (despite a brief youthful stint as a seminarian), are not spared in the first part of the performance, nor is the current center-left Italian government. In a recent performance before 4,000 people in Rome, he got laughs and applause when he suggested an unlikely alliance between the largest gay rights lobby and Italy's Catholic bishops conference. And he struck the right chord when he said he was made nervous by the presence of Giulio Andreotti, 88, a perennial political figure, whom he called the only living contemporary of Dante.

The show segues smoothly toward Dante, through a sketch that illustrates a nearly lost tradition he picked up from his native small town in Tuscany, where locals compete in demonstrating their virtuosity in verse, turning the most mundane of topics into rhyme. From there he sheds the comedian's skin and begins his introduction to "The Divine Comedy," with the line that every Italian knows by heart: "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, chè la diritta via era smarrita." ("Midway in the journey of life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood, where the right road was wholly lost and gone.") He explains the beauty of the rhyming Dante poem, making liberal use of adjectives like "extraordinary," "beautiful" and "marvelous." Phrase by phrase, he introduces his audience to the complexities of the 24 rings of the "Inferno" through Dante, who is guided on this spiritual and moral journey by the noble Virgil, the ancient Roman author of "The Aeneid."

Benigni illustrates the fifth canto, or chapter, that describes the tragic love story between Francesca and Paolo, condemned for the sin of lust to pass eternity in the first of the descending rings of hell.

The story is ageless. Francesca is unhappily married to Paolo's brother; they innocently read the story of Lancelot and Guinevere until passion overcomes them. They are both killed by the cuckolded husband, Gianciotto, who ends up in a lower ring reserved for those who commit the much more serious crime of fratricide.

"It shows us that we have to be educated in love, in respect. If no one tells us, no one teaches us, how can we know?" he asks.

After the lesson, Benigni recites from memory the poem in the original medieval Italian called "vulgar" because Dante broke ground by writing in spoken Italian, rather than the Latin used for literary purposes.

Through the piteous description of the passion-bound couple's demise, Benigni is completely transformed in face and demeanor, and is overcome, like Dante, with compassion for their cruel fate. The audience is left spellbound, before breaking into enthusiastic applause. He cites "Chaplin, the prince" as his model, and said that for an actor, "the comic and the tragic always touch." He said the ancient Greek and Latin principles -- explain, entertain and move -- still apply to his idea of theater.

Benigni chose to concentrate on Canto V because it is the best known and would attract the most people to a discussion of Dante in a popular setting. "Adolescents love it because it talks about love and sex," he said. "Dante wants to clarify to himself the nature of love, and he says that if you are mistaken about that sentiment then you are mistaken with your whole life."

He has thus far turned down numerous offers to bring "The Divine Comedy" to Hollywood, American theaters or Broadway because "the beauty is in the poetry, and you would lose the words, the sense, the rhythm, the music."

Still, he says, in some way he would like to bring Dante to the United States, because Dante is underappreciated and badly represented. "He is portrayed as old, Catholic, imperialist and medieval," he said. But when Americans do understand him, he said in typical Benigniesque hyperbole, "they fall in love until death. It's like seeing a cherry tree when it blossoms."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company