STEELE INTERVIEWS: Roberto Benigni

North American Tour of Benigni’s One Man Show– TuttoDante
Begins May 26 in San Francisco and Ends June 12 in Chicago

For the past three years, two-time Academy Award winner Roberto Benigni [for 1999’s Life is Beautiful] has been touring in his native Italy with his one man show. TuttoDante is a celebration of the work of acclaimed Italian poet Dante. Benigni takes current events and interprets them and blends them through his own reading, study and love of the epic poem The Divine Comedy by Dante. During the final act, he recites the Fifth Canto in its original medieval Italian. The Fifth Canto recalls the tragic love story between Paolo and Francesca who are condemned to Hell for eternity for the sin of lust. His performances have now expanded to other countries such as Paris, London, Switzerland, and Greece.

I spoke with him by phone, from Rome, recently. His infectious spirit traveled through the phone and made me smile and feel energized. This theatrical project sounds like a remarkable work of love and generosity. Benigni is bringing Dante to people so that they will enjoy it as much as he does.

Amy Steele [AS]: How are you doing?

Roberto Benigni [RB]: Hi. We have to talk a little. Where are you right now?

AS: I’m in Boston, Massachusetts.

RB: Oh Boston. I envy you. I’ve never been there. I can’t wait to be there.

AS: You haven’t been here?

RB: No never. Never. But I know Boston is a marvelous, magnificent city.

AS: Well I haven’t been to Italy, so. . .

RB: No, really? Never?

AS: No. Only France.

RB: So we wait for you.

AS: So in Italy does everybody read The Divine Comedy very early as children or when do you first read it?

RB: Oh no, my goodness no. They start about age 15. They teach it in school this wonderful book and people don’t like it and they are forced to learn this book and they teach The Divine Comedy in a very particular way. Although it is so a popular book and full of mystery. Sometimes it is incomprehensible but we need sometimes to talk about incomprehensible things. It’s very healthy. It’s very healthy to talk about what is death, what is destiny, what is the Other World.

AS: What do you like about it?

RB: Oh what? Everything. There is not a single word in it that I don’t like. It is so perfect a poem that every single word, you know Amy, is perfect. Fleeing from The Divine Comedy is impossible. It is like fleeing from our own conscious. How can I say? There is no other human creation that places human conscious and human suffering at such a high point. And it is also the reach of The Divine Comedy’s beauty. Because it is beautiful. When you start to read Dante, you stop reading every other thing because it is the most glorious imagination.

AS: I haven’t read it yet. I know I need to read it.

RB: Yes it is really great. When I come to Boston I would really like to see you, because it is very rare in book. The flavor of happiness. It’s really something very special. In my opinion Dante is maybe the greatest poet of modern poetry.

AS: My boyfriend has read the whole thing and he’s an engineer and he doesn’t read that much. On his own time, he read it. We did go to a visual interpretation at a museum.

RB: Right it is a very visual poetry The Divine Comedy. You can touch The Divine Comedy it is a book that is alive. It comes to life from the nervous system. Something that appeals to the mind and the nervous system. It’s in the eyes of a woman and we will never forget this. Beatrice: So written you are eternal. He promised to write something for her that nobody did before. And he kept his promise. It is really unbelievable what he did this man.

AS: So why did you want to write a show from this?

RB: No it is a show, Amy. I am not a professor and I am not an intellectual and I am not a critic. The show is separated into two parts. The first part of the show is about our time. The second part is Dante’s Fifth Canto about lust and sex and passions and loves and they are related. We can see how the sentiments are related. This is one of the most popular Cantos. It is the story of Paolo and Francesca and why they are in Hell. We would like to understand why two people in love are in Hell. This passion that can guide us and is concerning us very deeply and profoundly. The beauty of the language, the sound of his Italian is a symphony. The old sounds like Beethoven, Bach and Jimmy Hendrix. It’s really something beautiful and unforgettable. It’s very beautiful in my mind.

I decided to make my show about Dante and thought I would lose some people. But you know what happened, Amy. I am doing what I really love. To present Dante is like a gift. To present the most luminous poem of Italian culture. So I try, and really I was so surprised because I thought I would make this about Dante for some months and now it’s been three years and I’m continuing to make the tour about Dante. Incredible. So beautiful, really moving.

AS: How do you keep it fresh?

RB: What I present is always different. I couldn’t say no because I’m changing the show. It is never the same. I cannot write because we cannot use subtitles. What I am saying is always different. I try to continue. Although I would like to make a movie now: a comedy. Without The Divine [Comedy] in it. The first part of the show is a moment of lightheartedness. It is carefree. I do some research. But little about the town where I am doing the show.

AS: So the main subjects are covered in Dante’s work that you are weaving through the whole thing?

RB: It is related and we can immediately feel that because Dante is a great poet. Everything you read about Dante is something that is concerning you deeply and you can feel that it is something that moves into your soul into your bone. He found words for sentiments we can hardly feel because we don’t have words for them.

AS: What should U.S. Audiences expect?

RB: [To see me on stage] conveying my passion for Dante. And also if only one person starts to read The Divine Comedy, this is wonderful. It is a big thing.

AS: I have an online Israeli friend who asked me to ask you a question that is not related to this but is related to Life is Beautiful. How do you respond to critics who state there’s nothing good that can emerge from the Holocaust?

RB: Life is Beautiful was a real tragedy and sometimes they were confused because I am a comedian. They said, “It’s a comedy about Holocaust, my God.” I never thought about comedy about Holocaust. Impossible. The movie was a real tragedy but was starting in a happy way and the ending was tragic. In making this movie I put all my love and respect. I couldn’t hold back the beauty of the idea. I had to say something about the Holocaust and this is my way. It was a comedy body in a tragedy.

AS: I look forward to coming to your show.

RB: Come visit me in my dressing room. I would like to know you Amy.

AS: Thank you for speaking to me. It has been a real pleasure.

North American Tour Dates:

Tues. May 26–San Francisco–Davies Symphony Hall

Sat. May 30–New York City–Hammerstein Ballroom

Tues. June 2&
Weds. June 3–Montreal, Quebec, Canada–St. Denise Theatre

Sat. June 6–Boston–Berklee Performance Center

Sun. June 7–Toronto, ONT, Canada–Casino Rama

Wed. June 1–Quebec City, Canada–Gran Theatre de Quebec

Fri. June 12–Chicago–Harris Theatre

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