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Venice Film Festival: Roberto Benigni Receives the Lifetime Achievement Award

Ebullient like a “bottle of prosecco” the beloved actor, comedian and director explodes into transports of joy and gratitude

Roberto Benigni, beloved actor, comedian and director, best known for the multiple Oscar winning “Life is Beautiful,” has been awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2021 Venice Film Festival.

Like every other great artist, Roberto Benigni has had his share of ups and downs. For Roberto the ups have been stupendous. Who can forget him climbing over seats in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1999 as he collected his two Oscars for Life is Beautiful, for Best Leading Actor and Best Foreign Film?

Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect every project to be a hit. There have also been let’s say, less than appreciated movies like “Pinocchio” and “The Tiger and the Snow”. But looking at the overall career, Benigni is one of the standouts for Italian actors and filmmakers. Not many reach the global visibility and acclaim that is his. In a Variety article, he is referred to as “the legendary Italian comedian, actor, and director…”. In Italy he is considered a national treasure and is beloved as no other artist in recent memory.

Benigni is no stranger to awards. In 2003, he was honored by the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF), receiving the Foundation’s NIAF Special Achievement Award in Entertainment. In 2007, he was awarded the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa by the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium. In 2008, the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa was conferred on him by the University of Malta, celebrated by a Settimana Dantesca including Benigni’s first stage appearance at a university. He has been awarded a David di Donatello in 1988 and 1999, a Cannes Grand Prix in 1998, a César and a BAFTA award in 1999. These are in addition to a long list of other honorary degrees.

As I learned when I interviewed Roberto in 2008, at the time that he was enjoying explosive acclamation for his TuttoDante readings, this kind of fame is not easy to live with for a man as reserved and modest as he is. Although in public he seems totally uninhibited and bubbly, he is actually quite serious about guarding his privacy. He tries to avoid publicity as much as he can, though he philosophically accepts the price of his celebrity. “I always go to the same restaurant, where they’re used to seeing me. If I go to the movies I sit in the last row and maybe wear a cap… I walk at a clip, or I answer people with a cheerful wave but go on doing what I was doing. …I can’t take the train at all; they make me take private planes and so on. Yes, the price is high, but as they say, it would be worse if no one recognized me.”

In the hour-long talk that he gave on the second day of the Venice Film Festival, he was asked what his day looks like. His initial answer was to be surprised that anyone should be interested in how he lives his day: “Ma, ma, ma perché, mi si chiede come trascorro il mio tempo, non è importante, perché mai dovrebbe essere di interesse altrui? Perché mai la gente dovrebbe essere interessata alla mia giornata?” (But why, why, would you ask me how I spend my time? It’s not important, why should it interest anybody? Why should people be interested in my day?)

Not surprising to those who are familiar with his passion for the arts and literature–and most particularly Dante and Shakespeare–in his acceptance speech at the Venice Film Festival Benigni was extremely generous in acknowledging all those who had contributed to his success, and chose to acknowledge them in the context of his beloved artistic heroes: his wife Nicoletta as his Beatrice, his guiding light and muse;  Giuseppe Bertolucci his mentor, made him feel like Adam discovering the joys of the Garden of Eden as he helped him find his way in the film industry. Chaplin is the Michelangelo of comedy.

Roberto Benigni with Nicoletta Braschi and the young Giorgio Cantarini in a scene from “Life is Beautiful” (1998)

Benigni is a cultural force of nature. Not only is his knowledge vast, but he has been instrumental in popularizing Dante at a time when canonical literature had become increasingly intimidating to the public. Benigni managed to catapult the “Divine Comedy”—a text that despite its hallowed status is nevertheless considered “un mattone” (a brick), to the best seller list in 2008 while he was touring Italy and the world with his TuttoDante tour.

It is thanks to Dante’s immortal epic that Benigni climbed back to popularity after a few cinematic misfires, first in his native Italy, and then world-wide. During 2006 and 2007, Benigni had a tremendous success touring Italy with his 90-minute “one man show” TuttoDante (“Everything About Dante”). Combining current events and memories of his own past, Benigni analyzed, commented on, and performed the entire “Divine Comedy” in a tour de force performance that galvanized the audiences in piazzas, arenas, and stadiums all over Italy, for a total of 130 shows, with an estimated audience of about one million spectators; and later over 10 million more spectators watched the TV show, “Il V canto dell’Inferno” (“The 5th Canto of Hell”), broadcast by Rai Uno on 29 November 2007.

Roberto Benigni with Grace Russo Bullaro

Having wowed Italy with his innovative approach to Dante’s epic, Benigni then brought “TuttoDante” to the United States, Canada and Argentina, in 2008 to 2009, with performances in San Francisco, Boston and Chicago. Following his US premier, Benigni performed his last presentation on 16 June 2009, in Buenos Aires, Argentina where he was awarded Honorary Citizenship of the City of Buenos Aires in a ceremony held at the Legislative Palace in homage to the notable Italian diaspora and culture in Argentina. Benigni reportedly received offers to bring his Dante show to Broadway, but apparently, he turned them down.

Benigni’s acceptance speech was marked not only by the generosity of his acknowledgements, but by strong emotion.   In her tribute to him Director Jane Campion, compared him to a bottle of prosecco. And when “Benigni took the stage [ ] that bottle of Prosecco exploded”  with joy and gratitude. He ended by declaring that rather than that “golden lion” that he was holding, he only deserved a kitten.

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