Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Roberto Benigni Spectacular in Tutto Dante in NYC

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

Roberto Benigni is perhaps best known for the film, La Vita E’ Bella or Life is Beautiful. A friend of mine described the film this way: “In the first part you laugh, and in the second part, you cry.” Benigni uses the same structure in his one man show, Tutto Dante, which played at the Manhattan Center Theater in New York City on May 30, 2009.

Benigni bounded onto the stage amid circus music and moving spotlights, poking fun at his tenuous command of the English language. In fact, his English was delightful even though it required careful listening. He soon launched into his lexicon of Berlusconi scandals, sexual and political. (He claimed to have been willing to poke fun at the Democratic Left, but each time he started writing a joke about them, the party was out of power before he could finish it.)

From this comedic beginning, Benigni deftly moved into the subject of Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy. It soon became clear that if Benigni were not an actor, he would be a professor; the kind who makes material come alive and the kind you never forget. His presentation is testimony to the power of passion. His deep appreciation and connection to The Divine Comedy translates into a mesmerizing presentation of the complexities of life, death, and love as told by Dante.

Benigni took each line from Canto V and laid bare its broiling emotion. Canto V contains some of Dante’s most enduring images: the tail-curling Minos, lustful souls swirling in the terrible winds, and the timeless story of Paolo and Francesca. When Benigni inhabits this tale of torn love, he cries as Paolo cried. And we cry with them.

The final segment and breathtaking highlight of the show is Benigni’s recital of Canto V in ancient Tuscan. The sold-out crowd held its breath during this passionate recital. The final line of the Canto, “E caddi come corpo morto cade (And then I fell as a dead body falls)” pierced us all.

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