Tutto Dante, Tutto Benigni: Interview with Roberto Benigni

Archive 2009

2012/06/22 - Written by Gabriel Riel-Salvatore
Tutto Dante, Tutto Benigni: Interview with Roberto Benigni
Tutto Dante, Tutto Benigni: Interview with Academy Award Winner Roberto Benigni
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Few people can transcend linguistic barriers, and capture the hearts of people from across the globe, no matter their mother tongue. Just as Mozart inspired awe with his lyrics, and Picasso with the stroke of his paintbrush, Roberto Benigni does so with his inimitable gestures, whimsical facial expressions, and passionate soliloquies; regardless of whether or not you can understand his language - the language of Dante.

Benigni's solo stage act Tutto Dante was first performed in June 2006 in the ancient amphitheatre at Patrasso, Greece. The show then burst into the limelight with a performance at the magnificent Piazza Santa Croce in Florence, right beside the statue of Dante. After touring Italy and with a record breaking broadcast on RAI with over 10 million television viewers, Benigni will now take his act across the ocean performing in numerous cities across North America. We had the opportunity to speak with Benigni concerning his visit to Montreal, where he performed on June 3 and 4. The following telephone interview took place on May 14, 2009.

PI: Briefly explain how your interest for Dante was born.

RB: My interest for Dante is like an interest for any beautiful object, it's like looking at the sea! When I saw the sea for the first time, I liked it and I went back. That's how my interest in the sea was born. When I was young, I read Dante’s Divine Comedy and the words sounded like a melody, like a wonderful chorus. Dante was the only poet that my parents and grandparents - poor peasants- were familiar with. For them the word Dante was synonymous with poet! This man, with his big aquiline nose, was revered even by the poor. When I read Dante, it felt as if he was my best friend. Nobody knew me like Dante. When you read the Divine Comedy, it is this great work that reads you. It is Dante that reads you. I had the urge to call him up and ask him if he had the time to have a coffee together. He was like a friend. However, there were many details of the Inferno, of animals, monsters, devils, that scared me. Dante explores the human psyche. This type of writing was unprecedented.

 PI: In your interpretation of Tutto Dante in Florence your intent is clearly to give relevance to Dante's work for a contemporary public. If today's youth had a professor such as yourself, Dante would be much more loved and appreciated. What do you think?

RB: I thank you for your comment, but I would let the professors do their work. I'm not a professor, nor an intellectual, historian, or even a critic. I am an entertainer. It's my task to entertain, and I do so even with Dante's poem, which is in my opinion one of the greatest texts ever written, a text that has incredible imagery. I am not educating anyone, I am simply putting on a show. The beautiful thing about the Divine Comedy is that it's relevant and yet mysterious, incomprehensible at times. But sometimes we need to be exposed to the obscure, to topics like love, destiny, death, life after death. Nobody addresses these topics as much as Dante, and he constantly reminds us of the significance of these issues. The first half of my show barely has anything to do with Dante. For the first hour I discuss Berlusconi, I speak about modern issues. I will speak of Canada, of Montreal, of Sarkozy, of many different topics.

PI: How did you go about selecting the cantos from the Divine Comedy to incorporate into your show?

RB: I recite the fifth canto of Inferno, the tragic love story of Paolo and Francesca, which depicts the origin of passion, lust, sexuality. I chose it because it's one of the most popular parts of the Comedy, surely the most appreciated by today's youth. Dante wasn't a priest, he was a man who loved carnally. He wrote this poem because he loved a woman, Beatrice. He had an extreme urge to make passionate love to with her. Yet in Paradiso he placed her beside the Holy Vergin. Dante combines heaven and earth and remains the greatest poet, even today. By writing the Divine Comedy, he changed the way we perceive, desire and glorify women. He remains unsurpassed.

PI: Is your North American tour a possible prelude for an eventual adaptation of Tutto Dante on Broadway?

RB: Oh, they asked me to do a Broadway show a while back, but I'm only doing one show in New York. I'm going to the Manhattan Center, for only one night. Then I'm off to Boston, Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, Princeton and San Francisco.

PI: Tutto Dante is a show that was originally written in Italian. How important is it for you to export this show to an international audience, in the language of Dante?

RB: Well I attempt to adapt to the audience I am addressing. For example, when I come to Montreal, I'll try to do a bit of the show in French, or in New York, I'll do a bit in English, simply to make the audience happy. However, the final canto is always in Italian, because it is like a song. Dante’s prayer to the Holy Vergin in Paradiso is music. It's like combining Beethoven and Jimmy Hendrix, Bach and Duke Ellington.

PI: Do you think that trough translation, the original meaning of the Divina Commedia is altered?

RB: Yes, as they say in English, it is ‘lost in translation.’ It's the same as having an espresso in the USA. It's not the same as having it in Italy, the taste gets lost in translation! A hamburger in Italy probably won't be as good as one in the USA. But you have to work with what you have. Change a few words here and there, adapt the meaning - eventually the taste, the flavour, the smell, will be close enough. That being said, there are very good, extraordinary translations of Dante in French and in English, especially in English.

PI: How do you plan on reaching an international audience which probably knows little or close to nothing about Dante's Divine Comedy? Do you not think you might be oversimplifying such a complex piece of literature?

RB: The end of the Comedy is the most beautiful part. Poetry does not only live in the mind or the pen of a writer. It lies primarily in the ears of the listeners. In each and every one of us there is a divine spark of poetry that manifests itself. Dante makes this divine spark come alive, and we become great like him. We feel his poetry. This is the fascinating part I will try to bring forth.

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