In a vignette called "Strange to meet you," Roberto sits at a small table in a coffee bar. Five cups of coffee and two ashtrays are in front of him; he drinks and smokes. Steven joins him. ... See full summary »
If you're not Italian, chances are you're not going to get this. Without a grasp of the historical, political, and geo-linguistic contexts, most non-Italian audiences are unable to appreciate it. The film will just seem vile and crude (mainly because of the language), and with nothing to recommend it beyond a random comedic bit by Benigni. So here's an attempt to make it palatable and even enjoyable:
First, a note on the language. The film is set in the area near Prato (neighboring city of Florence) where Benigni grew up. The Italian that is spoken there is the direct descendant of Dante's Italianin fact, modern Italian is an elaboration of the dialect that was spoken in Tuscany. In general, Italians outside of Tuscany enjoy hearing the particular "vernacular" that is spoken in the region (particularly around Florence), because it seems richer and more colorful than the rather flat-sounding, standardized Italian spoken by everyone else. And one of the things that makes it so colorful is its profanity. Tuscans use profanity in a way that almost "de-profanes" itconverting it into an art form that rivals the most sublime oratorical rhetoric. So when Benigni launches into a seemingly endless stream of profanities (the Italian word is "turpiloquio"take "colloquy", drop the "col" and add the first syllable of "turpitude", and you get the idea), he's performing a centuries-old Tuscan ritual. As he goes on and on with his "bestemmie", his recitation begins to sound more and more like a reading of a canto from Dante's "Inferno". The sounds are no longer so much offensive as they are the verbal expression of a soothing trance. And, indeed, "Cioni Mario" has recourse to their magical cathartic power whenever he feels more at a loss and more adrift than usual in a world that he and his pals define as "la miseria" (a wretchedness that is not just material but also moral and cultural).
The historical context is provincial Italy of the mid-1970s. Gone are the incandescent years of strikes and student occupations that energized the Italy of the late '60s, and the kind of agitated existence that characterized the years of the great economic boom. Italy has begun to settle into a kind of pallid and stale self-complacency that was to spawn (as a reaction against it) the Red Brigades on the left and (much later as the epitome of it) Berlusconi on the right. For some reason, the DVD of this film drops the first 5 minute, in which Giuseppe Bertolucci, the film's director, plays a passerby looking over the posters promoting the latest porno flicks to hit the little town where "Cioni Mario" and his pals live. They symbolize the stultifying, mindless existence that much of provincial Italy was living in this interlude.
As for the political context, it's important to know that this part of Italy was situated in the "Red Belt" where the Italian Communist Party (PCI) was supported by a large majority of Tuscans. The photo pinned to a scarecrow and so admired by "Cioni Mario" is that of Enrico Berlinguer, elected as secretary general of the party in 1973 and who shortly afterward announced the party's "historic compromise" designed to integrate the party into the mainstream of Italian political life. Berlinguer as scarecrow symbolizes the ambiguous status of the party and its new strategy: committed at one and the same time to working within the system and to a "revolutionary" transformation of the system. The so-called "debate on the equality of women" that takes place at the PCI's community center is one of the more hilarious moments of the film, and shows how the party's rank & file is hardly in a position to grasp the subtleties of the party's new strategy. Note how the audience all gets up to leave as soon as the bingo game hour has come to an end and the "cultural hour" is announced. And the moronic level of "debate" contrasts mightily with the center's name: Majakovsky, an iconic literary figure of revolutionary Russia. Equally hilarious I found to be Cioni's simple-minded explication of Berlinguer's role in the Revolution. To understand how laughable this is, I'll re-translate some of the language: "All that Berlinguer has to do is to give us the green light just show up unannounced at the TV station, 9 o'clock in the evening, with everyone in front of the screen, and say 'Good evening, comrades, ..go!" The Italian word is "via" and it's the same word that's used to start a race, as in "on your mark, get set, go!"
But this criticism of fuzzy thinking within the ranks the PCI does not imply that Benigni was not and is not a committed leftist--and his warm embrace of Berlinguer at a political meeting in the '70s is a well-known moment in recent Italian political history.
Addendum: I've added in the message boards for this film the Italian text of Bozzone's poetic ode to "losers" and Cioni's notion of Berlinguer's role in the "Revolution".
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