This April, Venice International Film Festival director Alberto Barbera announced that this year’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement will be awarded to Roberto Benigni. The director and actor — best known outside of Italy for the Oscar-winning 1997 Holocaust comedy Life is Beautiful — will be awarded for his “innovative and irreverent approach to rules and traditions.”
There was a time when such a claim could have made sense. For much of his career, as well as being leftist in his politics — close to the Italian Communist Party (PCI) — Benigni was also artistically transgressive and inventive. Yet in the last twenty years he hasn’t been challenging rules or traditions, or been much of an innovator. Rather, he has obeyed pop culture conventions, becoming a rather flat and repetitive performer able to earn a lot of money without disturbing the expectations of his audience or, more importantly, the established powers that be.
So, why was he awarded the Golden Lion? The answer lies less in Benigni’s own lifetime achievements than in the political culture that surrounds the world of awards and film festivals.
Benigni, Then and Now
Benigni is many things. An actor and director — he does not seem to prefer one role over the other — he is also a screenwriter, comedian, singer, and TV personality. In short, an eclectic performer on multiple different stages. The festival’s explanation for the award pompously states that “juggling his appearances on theatrical stages, movie sets, and television studios, each time with surprising results, he shines in all of them thanks to his exuberance and impulsiveness, his generous approach to the public, and the passionate joyfulness that is perhaps the most original hallmark of his oeuvre.”
More than that, Benigni, together with his onstage and life partner Nicoletta Braschi, is also a shrewd entrepreneur — a true money-making machine. He has his own production company and has built a large film studio in Umbria (central Italy), where some of his movies have been filmed including Life is Beautiful. The studios were later bought by the public-owned Cinecittà; the way this was handled is not entirely clear, spurring controversies in Italy. Today, they are abandoned and have fallen into complete decay. Benigni also receives attacks, often from the Right, for his high fee for appearing on public TV.
Benigni is also the actor that worked for directors such as Blake Edwards, Jim Jarmusch, Woody Allen, and Federico Fellini, or in tandem with Massimo Troisi (in Non ci resta che piangere — a cult movie in Italy) and Walter Matthau. He was also a free and irreverent Tuscan comedian, part of a generation of “regional” comedians and comedic actors and actresses that shaped Italian cinema, popular theater, and television from the 1980s to the 2000s.
It is hard to overestimate the cultural impact of a film like Berlinguer ti voglio bene (Berlinguer, I Love You), directed by Bernardo Bertolucci’s brother Giuseppe and named after the 1970s PCI leader Enrico Berlinguer. The jokes and sketches from the film are definitely not politically correct: they are caricaturally sexist and at times outdated. They also remain part of the cultural imaginary of generations of Italians, especially men, especially in Tuscany (where the author of this piece also grew up).
But there is a Benigni that spoke truth to power and made fun of pretty much everything and everyone, and then there is the Benigni who appears in Los Angeles to receive an Academy Award. Many in Italy still long for the former — the director of Tu mi turbi (You Upset Me, 1983), Johnny Stecchino (1991) and Il mostro (The Monster, 1994) — even though some of his earlier material definitely looks disturbing (like the famous sketch with Raffaella Carrà where he jokingly asked to see her vagina) or has not aged well. Some efforts, like the song Inno del corpo sciolto — a snarky ode to shit — are still sung and loved.
Yet that was decades ago. The Tiger and the Snow (La tigre e la neve), Benigni’s last directorial effort, dates to 2005 — neither a recent nor memorable work. The same could be said of his previous film Pinocchio; he also starred as Pinocchio’s father Geppeto in a more recent adaptation, by Matteo Garrone. In short, Benigni was a director only a very long time ago and for a handful of films, and while he was certainly important, he was no more so than multiple other Italian directors from the 1990s and 2000s.
One thing does, however, mark out Benigni: Life is Beautiful, the movie that earned him lasting international fame and taught us that Auschwitz was liberated by US tanks. Despite criticisms from some (perhaps most notably, the Maus author Art Spiegelman), the movie is a stable icon of Italianness (and Jewishness) in the United States, still seen and taught in colleges and universities.
The film did untold damage: the bald historical lies (in reality, the Red Army that liberated Auschwitz), the idea that concentration camps can be told as a fairytale, its simplistic view of Italian Fascism, and more. In a favorable review, revered film critic Roger Ebert praised it for “sidestepping of politics in favor of simple human ingenuity”: he meant this as a positive thing, whereas it encapsulates in a sentence what is wrong about the film and why it did so well. Life Is Beautiful was received particularly well in the United States: the critically acclaimed work took in $57 million, to this day the second biggest foreign hit after Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
It is no surprise that someone who came to be identified abroad as “quintessentially Italian” would, in turn, become a reader of Dante (the national poet) on Italian TV and on stage — even touring the United States with this show. For the director of the Venice Film Festival, Roberto Barbera, this popularization of Dante makes Benigni “an engaging and sophisticated literary exegete.”
In truth, we might better call him a showman. Some of his (apparently) improv skits are memorable, like in 1983 when he held PCI leader Enrico Berlinguer in his arms; or at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1999 when, after no other than Sophia Loren yelled “Robertoooo,” he climbed over colleagues and attendees at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, and then delivered a speech with a thick accent confirming all the stereotypes that Americans love to see in Italians.
Some commentators are already wondering what he’ll get up to in Venice when he receives his prize in September. In the end, this award has to do more with this — the show business dimension of cinema — than with the “cinematic art” that the Venice Film Festival claims to embody.
An International Show
So, what exactly is the point of film festivals — and what does Benigni’s award tell us about them? These events have always been hybrid events with multiple meanings: born in the 1930s, they are not solely the place where cinematic works are showcased and awarded, or a center of attention for cinephiles, but also networking hubs, where arts and market meet and collide. They are also important diplomatic tools — as was especially the case after World War II, when a plethora of festivals and film events took part in the effort to build a new world.
Venice’s International Exhibition of Cinematic Art is an excellent case in point, as the oldest-running film festival and the second major film event after the Academy Awards. Founded in 1932, it was part of a series of initiatives that the Fascist regime took to control and promote cinema, along with radio, the main audiovisual media of the time. Cinecittà — the “city of cinema” on the outskirts of Rome — was founded just five years later, modeled both on Hollywood and on Soviet experiences. Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was well aware of the power of cinema, and the film festival became a fundamental piece in the regime’s propaganda machine.
In Venice, everything was and still is political. The Venice Biennale, the umbrella organization born at the end of the nineteenth century to organize artistic displays, was in the early 1930s directed by count Giuseppe Volpi, an important Fascist official, former finance minister and governor of an Italian colony, and president of the Italian employers’ federation. He created the film festival, and the award for best actor and actress (the Coppa Volpi) is still dedicated to him, even at a time when statues are finally falling. In Venice, timid protests over this dedication are finally taking place, especially after the most recent edition in 2020.
The Venice Film Festival has always been a site of controversies and conflicts — a prism through which we can see the evolution in cultural and political sensibilities. For instance, around the time of 1968 there were protests and alternative festivals. More recently, in 2018, the Hollywood Reporter pompously reported how the “Venice Film Festival Lineup Reflects Italy’s Culture of Toxic Masculinity,” a claim blandly dismissed by Barbera who took to Twitter to exclaim “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry”. But it’s a good thing that it’s contested: for a film festival without politics is just a useless exhibit.
What is Venice now? It’s definitely still a place where conflicts happen, and one where the changes in the film industry decide who’s being awarded and who takes part. If Cannes, the other major festival in Europe, has had a hard time accepting films produced by online platforms that bypassed the experience of theaters, Venice has welcomed them, for instance awarding Netflix’s Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018).
The Italian festival also had to face the competition of a North American festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, and for a few years in the 2000s it seemed that Toronto was more on the map than Venice. However, during Barbera’s presidency (beginning in 2011) Venice regained importance, attracting more and more US films, which received the Golden Lion in recent years — besides Roma in 2018, there was also Todd Philips’s Joker and Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland.
Hollywood is not alien to Venice; divas and stars have been at home there since its early days. What is happening in recent years seems more a return to this past than something really new.
The Venice Film Festival is not the Locarno Festival — the Swiss event which traditionally showcases alternative independent and even underground films — or indeed the Berlinale, the other main European film festivals historically keener to show nonmainstream cinema. Rather, this is somewhere where the mainstream is at home. So, what’s the problem with an award to a mainstream Italian actor and director?
As always happens with this kind of honorary awards, past awardees have varied wildly depending on the cultural and political moment — and, naturally, on the personal inclinations of the director and the artistic board. But there are some established criteria. They are usually awarded to directors (the vast majority of whom are, needless to say, white men) who have an obvious place in the history of cinema, or to actresses and actors who have been stars of important films.
Sometimes, the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement is also a sort of compensation for the relatively little critical or audience success that the awardee has received in their lifetime. This was the case, for example, of Frederick Wiseman, the documentary filmmaker whose name shines in critical and academic circles, but much less in the commercial mainstream. And, to take another major festival, this seems to be the case also for Marco Bellocchio, who will receive the Honorary Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival but has never won such a prize for one of his films.
Benigni doesn’t really seem to fit any of those categories. Barbera’s choice has probably to do much more with the festival’s need to be more “relevant” to a US audience and US cultural institutions. The point, then, is not to celebrate an Italian artist for his “innovation and irreverence,” but to tighten an American tie which seems increasingly important to the festival’s promoters.