Slapstick star who transcends language

Roberto Benigni holds his 199 Oscars for best actor and best foreign language film, both for "Life is Beautiful
Roberto Benigni holds his 199 Oscars for best actor and best foreign language film, both for "Life is Beautiful

As I sit here laughing over the memory of one of my favourite films, I can’t resist paying homage to a great Italian actor, Roberto Benigni , from Castiglion Fiorentino.

He has been in too many films, TV shows and theatre productions to mention them all, but there’s one in particular which never fails to make me smile and giggle to myself.

I first saw ‘Johnny Stecchino’ (trans. Johnny Toothpick),1991, in the splendour of a Florentine cinema, in Italian.

The film is about a Cesena bus school driver, Dante, (played brilliantly by Benigni) who bears a striking resemblance to a Sicilian mobster called Johnny Stecchino, the latter being pursued by mobsters.

The hilarious plot sees gauche and guileless Dante at risk when he happens to meet Stecchino’s wife Maria, who plots to have the bus driver killed instead of her husband.

However, in the end Maria falls for Dante and his innate daftness also protects him from his fate.

In the film, the hapless Dante is persuaded to go to Palermo by Maria, where she hopes initially to carry out her wicked plan of making lookalike Dante a replacement target of the mob.

She prepares for this by trying to make him ever more like the real mobster Johnny Stecchino.

She gets the daft Dante to adopt the same habits as her husband in order to fool the mob. She even persuades him to use a toothpick (uno stecchino) like the mobster.

The film is far from politically correct, but gloriously funny. Roberto is utterly hilarious as Dante and a real master of physical comedy. His gestures, facial expressions and slapstick make him the perfect actor for the role of naive Dante.

Interestingly he co-stars with his wife Nicoletta Braschi who plays the part of Maria. Benigni has also starred in other films with his wife such as ‘Down by Law’ (1986).

In the very poignant film ‘Life is beautiful’ (1997) he stars as an Italian Jew who tries to protect his innocent son’s feelings, whilst they are in a Nazi concentration camp, by pretending it’s just a game to play along with.

Although he’s played serious roles, I essentially see him as a comic genius.

I would strongly recommend you funny fanciers to check the man out.