“If I were a flying trapeze, I’d launch myself towards all of you and I’d kiss you all, even with COVID!”. This is how Roberto Benigni began his speech to an overflowing audience that flocked to the movie Arena set up by the Bif&st in Bari’s Piazza Libertà . The great Oscar winning actor-director arrived in Apulia’s regional capital to receive two prizes, the Federico Fellini Platinum Award for Cinematic Excellence and the Alberto Sordi Award as Best Supporting Actor for his role as Geppetto in Matteo Garrone’s “Pinocchio”. He was supposed to appear — according to the program — for just the amount of time necessary, but since he was so happy at the reception that he got, he stayed for 50 minutes. He also wanted to pay tribute – as a man of cinema – to the courage and great professionalism shown to him at the 11th annual festival, which is gaining more and more respect and warmth, not only in Italy, but also internationally. Furthermore, the region of Apulia is now the largest and most frequently used movie set in Italy.
The dynamo that is Benigni hit Bari at 9 pm and from the moment he arrived the city seemed to stop what it was doing and converged on him, completely carried away by his jokes, anecdotes and memories of a career spanning almost 50 years.
The comic immediately declared his love for Bari and for Apulia, and addressing Mayor Decaro, who was present in the audience, told him in a playfully imploring tone: “I want to come live here, can you find me a home?”. Decaro made a grand present to Benigni: an ampoule containing the manna of Saint Nicolas, the patron saint of the Apulian capital.
Once he had received the Alberto Sordi Award for his role as Geppetto in Garrone’s movie, Benigni answered questions by the journalist David Grieco, a friend of his from the time that “Il minestrone” by Sergio Citti was released in 1981. Then the real entertainment began with Benigni–who got up from his seat more than once to get close to the public– reminiscing about his life, starting with his childhood: “I come from a very poor but very ‘aristocratic’ family: in our home we had two or three things, but mom always kept them clean and my father always dressed well with the few rags that he had”.
And speaking of his father, the Tuscan comic then went on to reveal a touching episode that many people never knew about: “My father was a prisoner in a labor camp in Germany and when he returned home on foot, he weighed 42 kilos (92 pounds). There had been four of them when they left, but two of them had died on the road. When he was at that point close to home, he sent someone ahead of him to warn my mother that he was about to arrive because he was afraid that she’d pass out from the shock of seeing him pop up so suddenly. When he was face to face with her, he said, ‘I never stopped thinking about you’ – as if to say, ‘my memories of you gave me the strength to survive’ – and having said this, he collapsed on the floor and went into a coma. From the time that he recovered after this, to his death, he never even caught a cold”.
He then turned to the subject of Pinocchio and of his character, Geppetto, that he played in the movie by Matteo Garrone: “Pinocchio was always my destiny; both Fellini and my mother would call me “Little Pinocchio”. It’s too bad that I never got a chance to see a Pinocchio movie made by Fellini. I think that I’m the only actor in the world to have played both the characters of Pinocchio and Geppetto, a role that Francis Ford Coppola had already offered me”.
His memories of Hollywood and of the author of “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now” are the subject of many anecdotes that had made the meeting with him even more special: “When I was in the United States promoting ‘Life is Beautiful’, I went to see my friend, Tom Waits, with whom I had acted in ‘Down by Law’. He lived in the middle of nowhere, in a dump where the rain would come in, a really horrible place. While there I received a phone call from Robin Williams who invited me to get together with ‘two or three of his friends’. In no time, I found myself in a Hollywood villa sitting at the table with Williams, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and Robert De Niro – forget about Tom Waits’ home! Coppola spoke only in Neapolitan, actually, he spoke through Neapolitan songs. It was on this occasion that he told me that he was working on a movie about Pinocchio and that he wanted me in the role of Geppetto. Afterwards, we met another two or three times until his production company, Zoetrope, went bankrupt and he was forced to abandon the project”.
One anecdote led straight to another, even more sparkling: “Another time, Robin Williams called me to tell me that Liz Taylor wanted to meet me for dinner at her home because she and her companion, Rod Steiger, had really loved ‘Life is Beautiful’. Nicoletta and I went to see them in Robin’s private plane. We thought the plane would have 7 or 8 seats – instead it had 80! And when we were at Liz Taylor’s home, Steiger at one point took me by the arm and asked me if I could find Liz some work. Can you believe that?”.
His memories of America revolved around Woody Allen: “I was astounded by how much space he gave me in his autobiography. The only thing is that, in the book, he states that he gave me a copy of Satyricon, instead it was The Decameron, in which there is anyway a novella with two characters that we could have played together, but the idea never materialized”.
Benigni paid a warm tribute to his wife, Nicoletta Braschi, as a husband who is very much in love: “All that is beautiful that I have done, I owe to her. Now I’d like to write and direct a comedy in which we can act together, after 15 years from the last time that we did in ‘The Tiger and the Snow’. I’m thinking of doing something that could be suitable for people of our age”.
And in the context of Italy, the Tuscan comic responsible for some unforgettable evenings on RAI television speaking about Dante, dedicated a very special homage to him asserting that, “He invented cinema. Reading the Divine Comedy, you realize that the video camera is already in place, as is the alternate editing, even the drones…”.
Benigni reserved the last, dazzling joke for the president of Bif&st, the German director, Margarethe von Trotta, who handed him the Federico Fellini Platinum Award for Cinematic Excellence: “With you, we always speak in German — the most beautiful language for poetry and torture.” And with Margarethe’s smile, this stupendous meeting of life and cinema came to an end.
Translation by Emmelina De Feo