Iraq War Is Backdrop for Latest Benigni Film

Italian filmmaker Roberto Benigni won an Oscar in 1998 for his Life Is Beautiful, which was set against the horrors of the holocaust. His latest comedy, The Tiger and the Snow, takes place against another tragic backdrop: the war in Iraq. Benigni has been a constant critic of the war, but moviegoers in Rome expecting an anti-American rant have been disappointed.

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The Italian comedian Roberto Benigni won an Oscar in 1998 for the movie, "Life is Beautiful." It was set against the horrors of the Holocaust. His latest comedy is "The Tiger and the Snow." It takes place against another tragic backdrop, the war in Iraq. Benigni has been a constant critic of that war. Still, as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome, moviegoers expecting an anti-American rant have been disappointed.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

Once again, writer and director Benigni stars as an exuberant and scatterbrained lovestruck every man. This time, he's a poet, Attilio Giovanni, who pines after the woman of his dreams, Vittoria, played by Benigni's real-life wife, Nicoletta Braschi. The movie opens with a Fellini-esque dream sequence, highlighted by digital images of famous literary figures such Jorge Luis Borges and Marguerite Yourcenaur, as well as the real-life Tom Waits.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Winter dreams are singing every time.

POGGIOLI: When the American-led war starts in Iraq, Vittoria is there to write a book about an Iraqi poet played by the French actor Jean Reno. When Attilio learns that she's been seriously injured, he leaves Rome on a madcap quest to reach Baghdad to save the love of his life. Arriving in the war zone, he starts a desperate chase to find medicines for Vittoria.

(Soundbite of "The Tiger and the Snow")

Mr. ROBERTO BENIGNI: (As Attilio Giovanni) ...(Unintelligible).

POGGIOLI: The Baghdad scenes, which were shot in Tunisia, alternate between the bleakness of war and slapstick, from an ugly looting scene...

(Soundbite of "The Tiger and the Snow")

Mr. BENIGNI: (As Attilio Giovanni) Go! Go! ...(Unintelligible).

POGGIOLI: ...to a kind of jig in a minefield.

(Soundbite of "The Tiger and the Snow")

Mr. BENIGNI: (As Attilio Giovanni) Boy! Ugh!

POGGIOLI: Benigni ended his movie "Life is Beautiful" with triumphant scenes of American soldiers liberating Nazi death camps. Here, US troops are shown as an occupying force. In one scene, Benigni pokes fun at the US search for weapons of mass destruction, the original motive for the war, grabbing a fly swatter and proclaiming `I have found the elusive weapons.' In the movie's key scene, Attilio, packs of medical supplies strapped to his body, comes up against a US checkpoint where soldiers are convinced he's a suicide bomber.

(Soundbite of "The Tiger and the Snow")

Mr. BENIGNI: (As Attilio Giovanni) I'm Italian.

POGGIOLI: `I'm Italian,' he yells at the troops pointing their weapons at him. A furious soldier orders him to put his hands on his head and asks Attilio who he is. `I'm a poet,' he answers, `like Dante, like Walt Whitman.'

(Soundbite of "The Tiger and the Snow")

Unidentified Man: Walt Whitman. OK, get the (censored) out of here!

POGGIOLI: Several Italian reviewers of the film accuse Benigni of sugar-coating the war. In a rare press conference, the comedian rejected the charge.

Mr. BENIGNI: (Through Translator) It's not a Marxist movie. It's not ideological. Many movies about war try to speak to the mind. They are documentaries. They have a strong point of view. This film speaks to the heart and that's more dangerous and more powerful.

POGGIOLI: Benigni was asked about his depiction of the US troops in Iraq.

Mr. BENIGNI: (Through Translator) I think that the anti-war feeling is very clear, very strong. The American soldier are seen as a presence. There are absolutely no judgments made. There is a sense of (Italian spoken) or compassion for the Americans, for the Iraqis, for all of us.

POGGIOLI: In Benigni's jois de vive and wide-eyed view of the world, life is beautiful even in war-torn Iraq. But contrary to his previous film where the Holocaust played a leading role, in "The Tiger and the Snow," the war in Iraq seems little more than a distant backdrop. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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