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  Benigni: The Pride of Tuscany

Vergaio, Italy
Tuscan fans in Vergaio watch Oscar-winning hometown boy Roberto Benigni on a TV screen. (AP)
By Sarah Delaney
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 23, 1999

ROME – Everybody knew he was going to win something. That's why more than 2,000 people converged on Roberto Benigni's Tuscan hometown of Vergaio to wait until the wee hours of this morning for the results of the Academy Awards – which meant well after 3 a.m. here.

Chanting "Roberto, Roberto" for much of the evening, hundreds packed a huge white tent complete with giant screen showing the ceremony, offered only by pay TV, to see how many Oscars their local boy would bring home. Others packed the town square, rowdy and happy to be there when the good news finally came in.

A smaller number was invited to the Casa del Popolo, a community house where Benigni hung out in his youth, picking up the stories of the older men who would gather after work. Benigni's parents, Luigi and Isolina, both 80, started their evening there but couldn't wait for the results and went home about 1:30 a.m.

"I was moved by all the people who came out to wait with us," Luigi Benigni said. "I couldn't wait; I've been sick and my legs hurt. But I couldn't sleep all night. At about 7 a.m., my daughter Anna called from Los Angeles to tell me the news. We cried like babies."

The rest of the country woke up to radio and television specials displacing news of impending war in Kosovo and huge bank mergers, to confirm what they knew would happen: The wacky actor, director and entertainer they had known for years had been officially recognized by Hollywood. But they didn't know he would win big, claiming three of the seven awards for which his film, "Life Is Beautiful," was nominated.

With the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, Benigni joined recent Italian winners Gabriele Salvatores for "Mediterraneo" in 1991 and Giuseppe Tornatore for "Cinema Paradiso" in 1989. But it was the first time in Oscar history that an Italian won the Best Actor prize, to equal the 1961 Best Actress award for "Two Women" by Sophia Loren, who tearfully gave away the foreign film Oscar last night. Nicola Piovani, who won an Oscar for the music of "Life Is Beautiful," was the second Italian composer in recent years to win: Luis Bacalov was honored for the dramatic score of "Il Postino" in 1995.

Sounding much like his exuberant son, Luigi Benigni said, "I can't describe the joy. It's immense." Noting Benigni's speech during the Oscars thanking his parents for bringing him up in poverty, he said: "Yes, he always had to make it on his own. Singing, acting, he did it all by himself. We're really proud of him."

The film was based on the stories Luigi Benigni told his children about his experience during World War II, when he was sent to a German labor camp after Italy dropped out of the Axis alliance in 1943, he said. "Roberto was so interested in those stories. I always told them without telling the children how much I suffered. I told them with a bit of humor. But I did suffer.

"I've always told a lot of jokes and stories. People told me I was good at it. I think that's how I got through that experience."

All of today's newspapers here had front-page headlines congratulating Benigni. TV news shows also gave lengthy coverage to the Oscars, showing Benigni accepting the awards, making comments afterward ("I was so happy I almost took my clothes off on the spot," he told Italian television), interviewing partygoers in Vergaio and Castiglione Fiorentino, the town near Florence where Benigni was born and lived until he was 6.

In the days leading up to Oscar Sunday, Benigni enjoyed nearly unanimous support here, and newspapers and television alike seemed to belong to one vast national cheering squad. One lone voice dared pierce the Benigni bubble: Giuliano Ferrara, a communist turned conservative, railed against the film from his small daily, Il Foglio, and the weekly Panorama, criticizing the film for making light of the Holocaust.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post

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