Arts: Fascism - the feelgood factor

Roberto Benigni is Italy's favourite funny film guy. And he thinks there's humour to be found in concentration camps
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Roberto Benigni dispenses kisses in liberal fashion. The effervescent writer-director-comedian, a household name in his native Italy, stands perched on the edge of international stardom thanks to his new movie, Life is Beautiful. He is so excited by the prospect that he is ready to plant his lips on anything that catches his eye. He was even recently caught embracing his ferocious American distributor, Harvey Weinstein. "I love to kiss women and men," he explains. "And animals. Also vegetables... and I kiss trees too!"

You may have spotted Benigni behind the wheel in Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth (he played a motor-mouthed Roman taxi driver with an unholy passion for sheep) or as the eccentric convict in Jarmusch's Down By Law. You may have seen his Peter Sellers pastiche as a young Clouseau in The Son of the Pink Panther. In Life is Beautiful, his trademark exuberance is only slightly dampened by the grim nature of the story. He stars as a Jewish-Italian waiter thrown into a Nazi death camp along with his young son Giosue (the Jackie Coogan-like newcomer, Giorgio Cantarini).

Benigni has worked with children before. Back in 1979, he appeared alongside a small army of four-year-olds in Marco Ferreri's Chiedo Asilo, an anarchic film about a kindergarten teacher and his unruly charges. Ferreri, the director of La Grand Bouffe, is best known for his obsession with food and sex. Benigni remembers: "Before each take, he'd mumble a few instructions. He'd say to me, `Roberto, explain to them in their own language that the world is a horrifying thing; that we're all here to suffer. Tell them also that it can be wonderful too.'" Benigni would oblige. Then Ferreri would yell ACTION! and the 50 or so kids would run amok.

Although Life is Beautiful was made in a very different style ("I completely prepared everything - there was nothing down to improvisation"), Benigni acknowledges Ferreri's influence. It was through Ferreri that he met Primo Levi. "His books changed my life," Benigni says of the great Italian writer and concentration camp survivor. "I was not the same after I had read them."

Whereas Levi chronicled his experience of Auschwitz in If This Is A Man in solemn, heart-rending detail, Benigni's movie opts for Chaplin-style slapstick and verbal gags. Guido, the quick-witted Jewish waiter, is forever posing trick questions to his favourite customer, Dr Lessing. ("I like riddles," says Benigni, reminiscing about how he and Umberto Eco used to send each other jokes and word games through the post.) The rub comes later on when the doctor tells him a story about a duckling. By then, Guido and his young son are inmates in the Nazi concentration camp. Lessing is the camp doctor. "It's a very dramatic moment. He is asking Guido to solve an enigma about a duckling, but the enigma is really about his life, which is in danger."

It comes as a bolt from the blue to see Lessing, the humane, cultivated figure from the first half of the movie, transformed into a Nazi. "That happened in real life - normal people, doctors, professors, were forced to join the SS. They'd try to hide the reality, otherwise their brains would explode... to hide themselves behind something - in this case, [it was] the riddles." Benigni was inspired to write the character of Lessing in this way by Primo Levi's recollections about meeting a Nazi chemist. Levi, a chemist himself, had tried to engage the Nazi in conversation, "but the Nazi chemist was talking only formulae, like riddles".

Interviewing Benigni is a disconcerting experience. He pulls faces and puts on funny voices. He tries to make you laugh. Then, when you ask where the comedy is in Nazi genocide, his features cloud over as if this is the most difficult puzzle of all. The answer lies at least partly in his own background. Benigni's father was a Catholic farmer, "a very simple man who didn't know anything about the war", who was sent off to serve as a soldier in the Italian army in Albania. After the Italian Armistice of September 1943, he was arrested by the Nazis and spent two years in a labour camp. "And when he came back, he was a skeleton. He weighed 35 kilos. He was a crazy man, like a dead man. He was an obsessive."

Benigni wasn't himself born until 1952. Nevertheless, throughout his childhood, he and his sisters were told terrifying stories about life in the camp. Their father was traumatised by his memories, but humour was his therapy. "There were some funny things too. And when he was able to smile, he stopped having nightmares."

Life is Beautiful begins cheerily enough, like a latter-day Mack Sennett two-reeler. The mood changes when Guido and his family are arrested by the Nazis but, even in the camp, the wisecracking continues. Guido tries to convince his son that they're on some sort of extended adventure holiday and that if he plays by the rules, he'll win a special prize of a tank. The sheer whimsy seems incongruous given the surroundings. Benigni, though, denies that making jokes about concentration camp inmates is in bad taste. "I'm not pulling someone's leg or mocking. When you think about St Francis, he laughed in front of someone who was dying, but he did so in a very light and wonderful way. He was trying to make the man happy before he died. This is another kind of humour."

Nor, Benigni insists, does Life is Beautiful trivialise its subject matter. He points to its reception in Israel, at the Jerusalem Festival (where it won four awards), as some sort of vindication. "I don't know if silence can have a quality, but the quality of the silence during that screening was unbearable for me," he says. "I remember there was one minute of silence at the end, which seems like an infinitely long time, and then they started applauding."

In Italy, too, the film has been well received despite initial misgivings. "Audiences went to watch the movie with curiosity and concern, asking why I was touching on such a strong subject, but it has been my biggest success." There was one newspaper which dedicated an entire issue to criticising him. "I respect their point of view, but when they say the film is fascistic, I don't know what they're talking about."

Benigni's friend Umberto Eco saw the movie twice. Although suspicious about the premise, he was soon carried away by the sheer brio of the storytelling. Time magazine's Richard Schickel was less enthusiastic. In a hostile review, he argued that "turning even a small corner of this century's central horror into feel-good popular entertainment is abhorrent. Sentimentality is a kind of fascism too, robbing us of judgement and moral acuity, and it needs to be resisted." Other critics have suggested that the film is well-meaning but hugely naive. Benigni counters them, claiming that nobody has a monopoly on the Holocaust. "It was a tragedy so inexpressible that it belongs to everybody... it belongs to me too." In the meantime, the film continues to pick up awards at festivals and to break box-office records, a sure sign, Benigni believes, of its universality of appeal.

Primo Levi committed suicide in 1987, still seemingly unable to exorcise the memory of the camps. What would he have made of Life is Beautiful? It's not a question which Benigni will even dare to answer. "But having read his interviews, his books and having met him, I don't think he would have been against it."

`Life is Beautiful' opens on 12 Feb