Life Is Beautiful and Beyond
Benigni is probably best known outside Italy for his 1997 tragicomedy Life Is Beautiful (La vita è bella), filmed in Arezzo, also written by Cerami. The film is about an Italian Jewish man who tries to protect his son's innocence during his internment at a Nazi concentration camp, by telling him that the Holocaust is an elaborate game and he must adhere very carefully to the rules to win. Benigni's father had spent three years in a concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen, and La vita è bella is based in part on his father's experiences. Although the story and presentation of the film had been discussed during production with different Jewish groups to limit the offense it might cause, the film was attacked by critics who accused it of presenting the Holocaust without much suffering, and some who considered that "laughing at everything" was not remotely appropriate, let alone credible. More favourable critics praised Benigni's artistic daring and skill to create a sensitive comedy involving the tragedy, a challenge that Charles Chaplin confessed he would not have done with The Great Dictator had he been aware of the horrors of the Holocaust.
In 1998, the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards. At the 1999 ceremony Benigni received the award for Best Actor (the first for a male performer in a non-English-speaking role, and only the third overall acting Oscar for non-English-speaking roles), the score by Nicola Piovani won Best Original Dramatic Score, and the film was awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, which Benigni accepted as the film's director.
Famously, in the midst of being so giddy with delight after Life Is Beautiful was announced as the Best Foreign Film, Benigni climbed over and then stood on the backs of the seats in front of him and applauded the audience before proceeding to the stage. And after winning his Best Actor Oscar later in the evening, he said in his acceptance speech, "There must be some terrible mistake, I used up all my English!" As well, to close his speech, Benigni quoted the closing lines of Dante's Divine Comedy, referencing "the love that moves the sun and all the stars." At the following year's ceremony, when he read the nominees for Best Actress (won by Hilary Swank for Boys Don't Cry), host Billy Crystal playfully appeared behind him with a large net to restrain Benigni if he got excessive with his antics again. In addition, on a 1999 episode of Saturday Night Live, host Ray Romano played him in a sketch parodying his giddy behavior at the ceremony.
Benigni played one of the main characters in Asterix and Obelix vs Caesar as Detritus, a corrupted Roman tax collector who wants to kill Julius Caesar, thereby seizing control of the Roman Republic.
As a director, his 2002 film Pinocchio, one of the costliest films in Italian cinema, performed well in Italy, but it bombed in North America, with a 0% critics' score at Rotten Tomatoes. He was also named as the Worst Actor for his role as Pinocchio, in the 23rd Golden Raspberry Awards.
That same year, he gave a typically energetic and revealing interview to Canadian filmmaker Damian Pettigrew for Fellini: I'm a Born Liar (2002), a cinematic portrait of the maestro that was nominated for Best Documentary at the European Film Awards, Europe's equivalent of the Oscars. The film went on to win the prestigious Rockie Award for Best Arts Documentary at the Banff World Television Festival (2002) and the Coup de Coeur at the International Sunnyside of the Doc Marseille (2002).
In 2003, Benigni was honored by the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF), receiving the Foundation's NIAF Special Achievement Award in Entertainment.
Benigni's latest film is La tigre e la neve (The Tiger and the Snow, 2005), a love story set during the initial stage of the Iraq War.
On 15 October 2005, he performed an impromptu strip tease on Italy's most watched evening news program, removing his shirt and draping it over the newscaster's shoulders. Prior to removing his shirt, Benigni had already hijacked the opening credits of the news program, jumping behind the newscaster and announcing: "Berlusconi has resigned!" (Benigni is an outspoken critic of media tycoon and then former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.) The previous day, he had led a crowd of thousands in Rome on Friday in protest at the center-right government's decision to cut state arts funding by 35 percent.
On 2 February 2007, he was awarded the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa by the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium. On 22 April 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 and the premiere of his performing with Dante scholar Robert Hollander.
Benigni has reportedly received offers to bring his Dante show to Broadway, all of which he has turned down.
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