Roberto Benigni and the Cioni Mario di Gaspare fu Giulia Monologue

by Carlo Celli
Roberto Benigni and the Cioni Mario di Gaspare fu Giulia Monologue
Carlo Celli
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Roberto Benigni and the Cioni Mario di Gaspare fu Giulia Monologue

oberto Benigni gained international fame when his film La vita t bellallife is Beautiful (1997) brought him two Oscars for Best Foreign Film and Best Actor in 1999. This essay will examine the on- gins of Benigni's comedy and improvisational skills with a study of Cioni Mario di Gaspare fu Giulia (1975), the theatrical monologue that was the basis of his first television shows and his first film, Berlinguer ti voglio bene (1977).

In order to examine Benigni's monologue we must first mention his roots in the traditions of Tuscan improvisational poetry. When Roberto was in his teens, his parents encouraged him to participate in country festivals with improvising poets, the poeti a braccio. These poets were elderly men who performed at popular gatherings by reciting eight- line stanzas of hendecasyllablic verse with an ABABABCC rhyme scheme. In improvised exchanges on set themes, each poet continues the rhyme of his companion's last two lines (CC) in a display of wit and verbal acrobatics. Usually each contest features seven stanzas total as two poets take turns improvising stanzas and then collaborate on the seventh, alternating lines (Martinelli 61). Despite their origins in peasant traditions, the poeti a braccio are quite sophisticated and their performances are the fruit of careful and detailed preparation. Many of these poets include citations from poets such as Ariosto and Dante whom they have studied in order to gain familiarity and dexterity with the hendecasyllable meter (Levantesi 412). Therefore when Benigni recites Dante from memory, as he has with the 5th and 7th canto of the Inferno at the University of Siena in 1990 or the 26th canto at UCLA in 1999, he is continuing an oral tradition.

Andrea Cosentino has noted that the poeti a braccio combine the oral tradition of the 1300s with the diffusion of high culture that followed the invention of the printing press. In fad, the poeti a braccio singers and trou- badours think of themselves as the legitimate heirs of the chivalric court poets (Cosentino 15-30). They also call themselves the bemescanti in honor of Francesco Berni (1497-1535), a poet who mixed coarse plebian expressions with sophisticated literary forms in a burlesque and satirical style. Some of Berni's works such as Capitolo dell'anguille, Capitolo dei

ITALICA Volume 77 Number 2 (2000)

cardi, and Capitolo delle pesche emphasize lower-body themes. Like Berni, the bernescanti's oral rhyming contests could include vulgar humor to grab the attention of an audience at a tavern or country fair. Due to this background in oral traditions some critics have referred to Bakhtin's work on Rabelais and carnival humor in order to explain Benigni's appeal (Cosentino 6).

Given Benigni's contact with Tuscan rhyming traditions, it is impor- tant to note that he came of age during a period of transition for the centuries-old peasant culture of his forefathers. This world of subsis- tence farming disappeared rapidly during what economic historians have defined as Italy's economic boom. Between 1950 and 1960, the national economy grew by nearly 47 percent, almost as much as it had during the entire first half of the century. By the early 1960s, the num- ber of industrial workers surpassed agricultural workers nationwide (Atlante storico Garzanti 573). In hindsight the explosion of the Italian economy in this period was an epochal event, transforming Italy from a primarily agricultural, to an industrial, consumer economy. In 1958 the Benignis, like many traditional farmers in the period, left their home- town of Misericordia to find work in the regional industries at Vergaio near Prato. Such emigration was part of a national phenomenon and was highest in areas where absentee landlords controlled most of the land. In Benigni's native region of Castiglione Fiorentino, the popula- tion decreased by roughly 20% from 1951 to 1961 as the countryside lost population to towns that could offer a wage economy (Nassini 33). In the space of a few years with the diffusion of television, a nation- wide process of cultural homogenization began. Instead of local songs, dialects, and traditions, the Italian nation began to identify more with the national language, game shows, and song festivals. Roberto was part of a generation that directly experienced this waning of tradition- al peasant life.

In 1972, Benigni left Tuscany for the Roman avant-garde theaters such as the Beat 72, the Satiri and l'Albericchio. Benigni began to per- form regularly as part of the fantasma dellbpera theater company in works such as: I Burosauri (1972),La contessa e il cavolfiore (1973),La corte delle stalle (1974) and I1 mito della caverna (1975). He also appeared as part of le parole le cose theater group directed by Lucia Poli in Le fiabe di Basile (1972), Ovid's Le metamorfosi (1974), and La festa (1974), as well as in two plays written and directed by Marco Messeri: Bertoldo Azzurra (1973) and Mi voglio rovinare (1974).

During this period, Benigni was intrigued by the avant-garde's attempt to break down barriers between audience and performer. A statement by one of Benigni's colleagues, Donato Sannini, gives an idea of the highly theoretical grounding of the Roman avant-garde the- ater of the early 1970s. "La ricerca del 'I1 fantasma del'Operal si rivolge all'individuazione di scherni culturali nei quali organizzare comportsmento e realth per tentare un passaggio dall'arbitrarieth della libera associazione alla consapevolezza della forma" (Quadri 640). However, Benigni met Giuseppe Bertolucci who suggested that Roberto would do better to read the classics rather than experimental, avant-garde texts (Parigi 165). Bertolucci, whom Benigni has recognized as a cul- tural father figure, encouraged him to begin with Collodi's fable Pinocchio. After Pinocchio Bertolucci suggested Ariosto's Orlandofurioso whose rhyme scheme Benigni recognized from his apprenticeship with the Tuscan troubadours. Benigni also read the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, whose philosophy is featured in La vita t bella. Next Benigni read the semi-mythological, scatological classic Gargantua by Rabelais as well as the poetry of Walt Whitman. Of all these works the obscene, corporeal Gargantua and its Bakhtinian subtexts seems to have been the reading that Benigni identified with the most (Parigi 166).

When Bertolucci suggested the Russian classics, Benigni began to think about writing a monologue in the style of Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground. But Bertolucci recognized the physical and scat- ological themes in Benigni's stories about his hometown and encour- aged him to perform something about his past in a Rabelaisian style (Parigi 166). Thus the basis of the Cioni monologue is the combination of literary influences with the stories of Benigni's life in Vergaio after his family's emigration from Misericordia in the late 1950s. After a visit to Benigni's home region in Tuscany, Bertolucci transcribed and organ- ized Benigni's tales for the monologue Cioni Mario di Gasparefu Giulia (1975). The wording of the title is from parish birth records that list a newborn's name by father and grandparent. This reference to lineage immediately places the monologue in a static cultural context where the relationship to origin and geography are fixed. Although he is a contemporary character, Mario Cioni is the heir of his forefathers and is a part of their centuries-old cultural and linguistic traditions.

The stage instructions of the monologue called for a single, country- style lamp above Benigni's head. Benigni also began the performance with his hands in his pockets and was supposed to limit his move- ments during the hour-long monologue (Benigni 143). The idea was to communicate verbally rather than through body language or elaborate scenery. An entirely verbal performance was contrary to the Roman avant-garde's emphasis on imagery rather than verbality. However the Cioni monologue was performed under the auspices of Poli's Ie parole e le cose theater company in a period when the group had begun to reject the "adventure of the theater as image as it had been defined in a sort of paradoxical academic anti-academics" (Quadri 649). Therefore with Benigni's performance, the more verbally communicative aspects of theater again took center stage.

As in Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground, Mario Cioni, the pro- tagonist in Benigni's monologue, confesses the hidden, often shameful aspects of his experiences. But the monologue's resonance is deeper than a mere recounting of the particularities of Benigni's life in Vergaio. Silvano Ambrogi, the author of I burosauri, one of the pieces that Benigni performed in his early theatrical period, has noted that the monologue cannot be understood without a grounding in the peasant world, espe- cially in Tuscany (Ambrogi 12). In the monologue, Benigni transmits all of the anxieties, stupidities, and malaise of a generation abruptly uproot- ed from traditional peasant culture. Benigni distills the voices of an entire village into his monologue, emphasizing the Tuscan peasantry's fixation with lower bodily humor, religion, and left-wing ideology.

In the Cioni monologue, the first word Benigni repeats is the last name of the secretary of the Italian Communist Party in the 1970s, Enrico Berlinguer. Berlinguer was a respected if controversial figure for the Italian left in the 1970s. He introduced a policy of rapprochement, the compromesso storico, with the Christian Democrat Party of Aldo Moro out of fear that Communist electoral gains would lead to a right wing reaction similar to the coup against Chilean president Salvador Al- lende in 1973. The Berlinguer mantra is repeated four times in the pub- lished version of the monologue dividing the different voices and seg- ments and perhaps calming Cioni's verbal excesses. Benigni changes the accent on Berlinguer's surname so that it may include words within the name itself such as Ber or Per, lingue, Berlin, guerre, etc. The fact that the name of the Communist Party secretary could serve as a sort of an incantation explains much about Benigni's peasant background, where left-wing politics were almost innate and the Communist Party was considered the guarantor of political representation and the harbinger of revolution.

The first segment of the monologue introduces a Rabelaisian, scato- logical style of humor. Cioni is speaking to his father, who is on the toi- let where he has been spending much time since Cioni's mother died. Rabelais's Gargantua also begins with Gargantua's mother, Gargamelle, on the toilet, having induced labor and diarrhea by overeating tripe in a scene mixing scatology and misogyny. Like Gargantua's wife, Bade- bec, Cioni's mother in the monologue is also dead. Cioni's reaction to his father's habit of hiding in the bathroom is a stream of excremental and graphic invective. "Ma perch6 non vai all'inferno tu t'affitti un gabinetto e ci stai quanto tu voi, dico a te che m'hai sentito guarda caco qui in cucina accident' a te e ai tu' anni" (Benigni 143).

After cursing at his father, Cioni speaks with his friend Gommone at a dance. Cioni details his sexual frustrations and tells his friends that he is going to the local prostitutes. Here we see the influence of the sec- ond section of Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground in which the unnamed narrator, the Underground Man, relates the melancholy and solitude that push him to search for company even where he is unwanted. Cioni's anger and frustration echo the feelings of Dostoev- sky's narrator who also ends his fruitless and depressing evenings with prostitutes. Cioni then returns to lambaste his father, still on the commode, with a long, cruel curse.

Ti venisse un cancro ti venisse un accidente tu scopiassi sul momento tanto tu 'un capisci niente. Dio voglia tu cascassi e tu ti facessi male ti venisse una paralise alla spina dorsale . . . ti venisse la febbre ogni cam- bio di stagione ti scopiasse le vene ti salisse la pressione, che ti rimanesse in gola tutto quel che t'ha mangiato poi tu rantolassi in terra per moricci soffocato. . . .(Benigni 144)

This seemingly incomprehensible stream of violent and hateful dia- tribe is later explained by the reference to fascists at the conclusion of the insult. It is also necessary to recall that the 1970s were years of political terrorism in Italy, and the violent language was very much a product of the time. The cursing ends only when Benigni returns to his opening incantation of the name, "Berlinguerre . . . Berlinguerre."

Vi cascassero i capelli, tu incontrassi i fascisti da solo a mezzanotte ti scambiassero per Togliatti e ti riempissero di botte! S'accorgessero dello sbaglio ti dicessero: -Ci scusiamo! -E poi gih botte da orbi tanto dice: -Ormai ci siamo! -Ti tagliassero i bracci e dopo averteli tagliati ti tagliassero le gambe perch6 s'erano sbagliati. . . . (Benigni 145)

From politics the monologue turns to sex. The next voice is Cioni's mother who warns against masturbation with a nonsensical repetition of the words for "quit it" in Italian. "La devi smette, smetti smetti smet- ti. La devi smette smetti smetti" (Benigni 146). When Cioni returns to own voice, he vents his frustrations at Wanda, a barmaid who has rejected his advances. Cioni then takes up his father's voice as he recalls being an Italian soldier in World War I1 and idyllically describes a Russia where everyone is kind and good. From this political reference, Cioni turns back to his sexual frustrations with Wanda. Since Cioni is jealous that she has chosen Moreno instead of him, he erupts into a vir- ulent, misogynistic imprecation. Then the voice returns to Cioni's mother. She takes Cioni to Amadeo, a sorcerer, complaining that Cioni cannot hold a job. The segment ends with Cioni contorting in pain from the shaman's lotions.

From the peasant magic of the sorcerer's potions Cioni switches to the dream factory of the cinema. Cioni is at the movies watching the film Le sette amanti di Dracula, prohibited for viewers under eighteen years of age because of sexual content. Cioni talks back to the screen in the theater, interjecting his own comments about the physical corrup- tion and buggery of the film industry with the dialogue of the film. Cioni's angry and sarcastic comments reflect a frustration and bore- dom with cinematic culture in a period when many theaters in Italy survived the decline in spectators caused by the competition with tel- evision by screening pornographic films.

Cioni then falls asleep during intermission. He awakes to the real- ization that in his dreams Giorgio Almirante, the leader of the post-war Italian neo-fascist party, MSI (Movimento Sociale Italiano) gave him oral sex. Cioni is horrified to discover that he must have enjoyed the dream since he ejaculated. This provokes a stream of curses aimed at the neo-fascist Almirante. Again the fears and diatribe, both sexual and political, end with the reassuring mantra of the name of the Com- munist Party secretary.

Dio volesse per un momento e mettessan te per sempre in un campo di concentramento . . .ti bruciassero in un fomo, ti morisse i colonelli tutto il pop010 l'6 stanco tu morissi tra i dolori proprio come 6 morto Franco, tu ti sentissi male ti venisse un ascesso ti scopiasseroin culo tutte le bombe che tu hai messo, ti chiavassero la moghe tutti i morti della guerra e ti nascesse un figlio che assornigha a Berlinguerre . . . Berlinguerre . . . Berlinguerre. (Benigni 153)

In the penultimate segment of the monologue, Benigni returns to Cioni's mother's voice. She complains that at 25 Cioni cannot hold a job and is uninterested in marrying a neighborhood girl just because she is lame. Although seemingly comical, this section illustrates how prolonged adolescence became a common feature of Italian society after the transformation of the Italian economy from agriculture to industry. As in all consumer societies, the economic boom in Italy brought an extension of the period in which children attended state schools and thus remained tied to their families (Bianchi 17).

In the monologue's conclusion, Cioni expresses his immaturity and inability to form lasting relationships. Cioni bargains with a prostitute, asking her to explain why she charges less for one type of sex than for another. As in Notes from the Underground, Cioni unloads his frustra- tions on the only character weaker than himself. Unlike Dostoevsky's Liza, the prostitute in Cioni is nameless and does not seek to redeem her client. She, like Cioni, is reduced to an animal existence devoid of noble sentiment. In the final moments of their coupling Cioni stares at the stars in an ending that seems to recall Zampano's situation at the end of Fellini's La strada (1954).

The first performance of this one-man monologue at Grignano near Benigni's hometown, Vergaio, was not well received. The next day the president of the drama club that sponsored the event was forced to resign. When a performance was staged at nearby Incisa some of the audience began to file out before Benigni finished the monologue. Apparently the residents of Benigni's home region simply did not rec- ognize their own voices on stage. The theater had traditionally been the territory of the educated classes that spoke in correct Italian (Nassini 153). The show was taken to Rome in December 1975 and per- formed at the Albericchino Theatre, the lower section of the Albericchio. However, as was common with the avant-garde theater, the first few performances were poorly attended. Public reception changed when the theater critic of the Communist Party newspaper, L'Unita, wrote a positive review and stirred public interest. After the review in L'Unita, Benigni played packed houses (Nassini 153).

The importance of the material from the Cioni monologue in Benigni's career cannot be underestimated. It formed the basis of his first appearances on television Onda libera (1976-77), Vita da Cioni (1978), and in his first film Berlinguer ti voglio bene (1977). While the Cioni monologue has no explicit octets in the poeti a braccio tradition, Cosentino notes a similarity to the octet format in the long series of curses against Almirante. By the time Benigni performed the Cioni monologue, Benigni had adapted the improvisational techniques of the poeti a braccio into a format accessible for an Italian audience (Cosentino 50).

After his theatrical success, Benigni was approached by RAI, the Italian State television network, to produce a television program. The fact that the decidedly leftist, obscene, country bumpkin Cioni could get his own show was a complete subversion of RAI's conservative policies (Simoneli 46). The change in RAI programming was partly a response to the social upheavals that began in the 1960s. However another decisive factor was the 1976 decision by the Italian Corte Costituzionale to open the airwaves for private television stations, end- ing the state television monopoly. The Italian public gained increased access to American films and serials for broadcast from private televi- sion stations such as those owned by media mogul and later Prime Minister (and Benigni target), Silvio Berlusconi. In the Italian television industry, the period following the anti-monopoly court decision became known as telmisione selvaggia. As the term implies there were opportunities and room for experimentation. Benigni had the luck, repeated in later phases of his career, to be in the right place at the right time. After his success in the Roman theater in 1975 with the mono- logue, Cioni Mario di Gaspare fu Giulia, RAI producers invited Benigni and companions to participate on the newly instituted state television channel two, which had a mandate to provide alternative program- ming (Simonelli 41).

Benigni and Bertolucci wrote and recorded three one half-hour episodes in 1976, adapting the original Cioni monologue material into their program, Vita da Cioni. However the episodes of Vita da Cioni were shelved until finally broadcast on RAI's channel two on October 13, October 20, and November 3,1978 (Parigi 121-26). From the begin- ning of his television career, Benigni had difficulty with the self-cen- sorship codes of Italian television that would not be liberalized until the 1980s. The next attempt at a television program was originally titled Teleuacca, later changed to Onda libera after the network rejected the original title. Onda libera aired in four episodes (December 19, 26, 1976 and January 2, 9, 1977) again on RAI's channel two. In the Teleuacca or Onda libera programs, Benigni and Bertolucci expanded Cioni's central theme of sexual angst in the wake of the cultural and economic changes to peasant life. But the program also included new material also appeared in the Vita da Cioni program, with routines on America, China, television, political violence and class tensions (Ambrogi 94-110).

The Onda libera television program begins in the style of RAI State television with a close up of a well-dressed, female announcer. In very correct Italian, she invites the spectators to enjoy a light-hearted musi- cal program entitled 1favolosi anni del pre-boom, which promises a nos- talgic musical review of the years preceding the economic boom of 1957-62. A resonating, flatulent Bronx cheer interrupts this standard and predictable opening. Benigni, as Mario Cioni, appears in a barn filled with straw, cows, pigs, and chickens playing the guitar and shouting out a song called La marcia degli incazzati.

Sono incazzato, perche non lo so,
per fatti mia . . .
Sono incazzato con i parenti
sono incazzato con conoscenti
Sono incazzato, sono aggressivo
sono incazzato, se trovo il prete
lo mangio vivo. . . .(Ambrogi 22)

The song immediately challenges official culture, attacking the stal- warts of the Christian Democrat, Catholic ideology with anti-family and anti-Catholic material. Monna played by Benigni's co-troubadour Carlo Monni, runs in after Cioni carrying a camera that he wobbles while stumbling among the animals' stalls. Cioni makes an appeal for spectators to send donations to an address in Poggibonsi, the heart of the Tuscan countryside, to help the barnyard team continue to pirate the network frequency. The audio switches to the off-camera agents of the network who try to reacquire control of the pirated transmission. Throughout the program, audio and video control shifts back and forth between the two sides.

Despite the comic tone of the program, the episodes end violently when the off-camera network functionaries end Cioni's intrusion on their airwaves by killing him. Given the intense political terrorism in Italy between 1968 and the early 1980s, these gags have a tragic subtext and continue the style of the original Cioni monologue. At the end of the first episode, a network functionary disguised as Cioni's mother stabs him. At the end of the second episode, another functionary in a blond wig who pretends to be Cioni's cousin Clementina, shoots him. After each Cioni murder scene, the screen cuts to the logo of RAI state television. The off-camera voices from the network lament about hav- ing to stoop to violence but agree that Cioni's elimination was vital.

In his death scene ending the first episode, Cioni points out the cul- tural changes brought by television. He describes the airborne waves of television signals as a virus that infects people and reduces their individuality. Eventually the television signals go underground where they contaminate agriculture and become part of the grain and ham which people eat. By ingesting the waves, the mind of the nation is reduced to parroting phrases heard on television. An agonizing Cioni gasps, "smette l'onda o smette l'omo" (Ambrogi 49). With the liberal- ization of RAI programming in the late 1970s, debates raged over the role of television as promoter or destroyer of Italian culture. Umberto Eco had even noted a schism among intellectuals taking these opposite viewpoints he called the apocalittici and integrati (Eco 1). Thus despite appearances with his barnyard setting and coarse jokes, Benigni was handling themes of great sophistication in his early television shows. When Cioni asks "10 sono un omo o sono un'onda?" (Ambrogi 49) as he lies dying, it is a warning of the disappearance of indigenous cul- ture in the face of economic changes and mass media culture. Benigni's re-assertion of the peasant roots of Italian culture reveals a romantic nostalgia for the simplicity and solidarity of the agricultural lifestyle, a theme that echoes Pasolini's recognition of the disappearance of indigenous culture.

After the television programs, Onda libera and Vita da Cioni, Benigni and Giuseppe Bertolucci made Berlinguer ti voglio bene (1977), a feature length film version of the Cioni Mario di Gaspare fu Giulia monologue. For the film Benigni and Bertolucci changed the set of Cioni's antics from the stark lighting of the Albericchino Theater or the barnyard set of a RAI television studio, to Benigni's Tuscany. The film has extensive on-location shooting in the local Communist Party recreation centers, Case del popolo, in Vergaio, as well as Quarrata, and Capalle. There are touches of local color such as a cameo of an elderly man singing poet- ic, if slightly obscene, ditties in the poeti a braccio tradition. However the realistic settings and the consistent recreation of the public spaces in the film (casa del popolo, bar, dance hall, movie theater) actually dimin- ish the film's comic appeal. Benigni appears in the striped suit and oversized pants of a peasant come to the city. However his compatri- ots also seem estranged from the contemporary world so the film lacks the contrasts and surprises that characterize Benigni's later work.

When Benigni and Bertolucci brought the Cioni monologue home in the expanded format of a feature length film, they increased the num- ber of characters that Benigni fished out of his past. The Cioni monologue had distilled an entire people into a stream of voices spoken by one performer. In Berlinguw ti voglio bene this process was reversed. Many of the characters from the monologue appear in flesh and blood such as Gommone (Bozzone), the priest, Moreno (the bartender), Rita (barmaid). Of course there were changes. In the film, Cioni's father has died of cancer whereas in the Cioni monologue he was constantly on the toilet. In the monologue Cioni's mother is initially dead, and only appears in a flashback when she brings Cioni to be cured by a sorcerer and later to consult a priest. In the film the Oedipal triangle between Cioni, his best friend Bozzone and Cioni's Mammina becomes the focus of the plot. Mammina is played by the charismatic actress Alida Valli, an international star of films such as Piccolo mondo antico (1941), Senso (1954), The Third Man (1949), and Strategia del ragno (1971). Valli was 56 years old at the time of shooting, and she dominates the film as the central figure in Cioni's Oedipal drama.

For the film, Benigni and Bertolucci gave Cioni an entourage in the tradition of Boccaccio's pranksters in the Decamwon. The immediate identification of Cioni with a male gang is important for the misogy- nistic theme developed in the film. Cioni's gang has the sort of nick- names typical in the Tuscan countryside: Ignorante, Buio, and Bozzone. Like Boccaccio's group of Calandrino and Buffalrnaco, Cioni's friends play cruel tricks on him. They have the dance hall singer announce that Cioni's mother is dead in order to spoil his chances to have sex with a woman he met there. Later, Cioni is forced to allow Bozzone into his house in order to have sex with Mammina, much to her initial conster- nation, in order to settle a card playing debt.

In the Cioni monologue the mantra-like repetition of Berlinguer's name divided the segments of the monologue and was a point of refer- ence in a storm of verbal chaos. In the film, Berlinguer is reduced to a scarecrow in a field where Cioni goes to contemplate, but not to work. By placing Berlinguer in a field as a lifeless puppet, completely separate from Cioni's day-to-day life, Benigni and Bertolucci made a point about the attenuation of the revolutionary mandate of the Italian Communist Party. Many of Cioni's soliloquies in front of the Berlinguer scarecrow from the script do not even appear in the final film (Benigni 80-82). In the mid-1970s the Italian Communist Party reached a political and elec- toral high point, but was never able to enter a governing coalition. The party had an ambiguous political stance on issues such as NATO and its own role as a revolutionary organization. In the 1970s Berlinguer's open- ing to the Christian Democrats, the compromesso storico, alienated the radical elements of the Italian left (Forsyth 10). In the film one of Cioni's gang complains about Berlinguer.

IGNORANTE: Quello che mi preoccupa a me l'6 Berlinguer: recente-

mente mi pareva un po' lento.

CIONI: Berlinguer non 6 lento, Berlinguer ci vuol bene.

IGNORANTE: Anch'io gli voglio bene a Berlinguer, ma il problema non

6 mica quello di fidanzarsi con Berlinguer, l'& quello di fa' la rivo-


CIONI: La si fa, si fa! L'unica cosa che dovrebbe fare Berlinguer 6 quel

la di darci il via, basta. Lui si dovrebbe presentare in televisione, senza

dir niente a nessuno, la sera alle nove, piano piano entrare, tutti pronti

davanti, e lui arrivare e dire: "Buonasera, compagni .. . via!"

IGNORANTE: E perch6 non ci da il via?

CIONI: Perch6 c'ha da fare, c'ha famigdia. (Moscati 48)

Part of the post-boom transformation of the Italian economy was that ex-peasants like Bozzone and Cioni could aspire to the consumerist model of a middle class lifestyle. In Italy increasing segments of the pop- ulace became not only economically but also culturally part of the mid- dle class. Even if their earthy language hints at their origins, Cioni and his friends have entered the world of salaried employees and are no longer dependent on a harvest for survival. In one of the last scenes in the film, after Bozzone declares his conversion to Christianity and mid- dle class aspirations, Cioni performs a dance while the soundtrack plays a worker's protest chant -11 potere deu'essere dell'operaio. But the protest song is a distant echo that mixes with the sounds of the wind blowing through the trees and the roar of cars on the freeway.

If the traditional left of the Tuscan peasantry is waning, with a leader who is reduced to a scarecrow and is unwilling or unable to lead his forces in revolution, then in what do Cioni and his friends believe? The answer is that for Cioni the only certainty is the Bakhtinian body, a fixation that recalls Benigni's introduction to Rabelais in Rome. In the film, Cioni explains everything in terms of physical experience, includ- ing communism, which Cioni defines as being like a wet dream, exist- ing and arriving without knowledge or awareness. The most graphic example of a physical worldview is the long tracking shot soliloquy of curses Cioni delivers after he has been tricked into thinking that his mother is dead. A mother's death provokes obscene anger at all of the possible orifices in the world subject to human baseness. In Cioni's turpiloquy one senses the survival of the peasant relationship to the natural world, since the curses are largely bucolic, based on bodily secretions and cows. To emphasize the connection with the natural world, when Cioni begins the soliloquy, the soundtrack accompanies him with a crescendo of the sounds of nature with crickets, frogs, and howling dogs.

The stage directions in the Cioni monologue called for Benigni to perform motionlessly with his hands in his pockets. The idea was to emphasize the verbal aspect of the performance (Benigni 143). Berlinguer ti voglio bene makes a determined effort to reverse the verbal emphasis of the original monologue by introducing slapstick sequences. Benigni even performs a series of harlequinesque dances, such as the scene with his lame fiancee where he makes a show of his legs in order to humiliate her. Cioni performs a similar dance after Bozzone proclaims faith in God that ends in a Keatonesque routine with an oil barrel. Cioni, viewed from above and in profile, acts like a puppet. Yet the ver- bal elements still dominate the film which received a rating prohibiting viewers under eighteen due to the references to sex and sacrilege. Paradoxically the obscene content of the film is entirely verbal, since there are no visually explicit scenes. If it were a silent movie, there would be no cause for age restrictions (Micciche 321). This obscene lan- guage has an element of innocence and is not unique to Cioni and his gang, but common to every character in the film, young, old, and even the priest, Waldemaro. In a rare moment of tenderness between Cioni and Mammina, Cioni asks his mother to tell him the fable of the man without a penis, a fable party to a long tradition in Italian and Tuscan literature particularly by authors who followed the novellistica tradition of Boccaccio.

Like the Cioni monologue, the film also has references to religion. Part of the film's materialistic message is rooted in the Catholic belief that since the world is inherently evil, sin is inevitable, a frustration expressed in Cioni's earthy language. When Cioni laments about his mother's death, he reduces the Catholic afterlife to the betting schemes of the national football lottery. To play one must guess a game's final result by putting a mark next to the names of the competing teams: 1 -first team, 2 -second team, X -tie. Given the arbitrary and con- tinuous repetition of the weekly soccer lottery, Cioni's sees little differ- ence between the teams playing. 1 -Paradise, 2 -Hell, X Purgatory. A nihilistic and bored Cioni even questions God about his motives in an imagined dialogue where the point in contention is mas- turbation in paradise. The combination of betting and masturbation is a further example of Cioni's physical philosophy.

Uno sta tutta la vita senza tirassi seghe pe' anda' in paradiso, poi tu mori, tu ci vai, dice: oh, ora mi pot& fa' tutte le seghe in pace, son morto dalla vogha . . . arriva Dio, dice: alt, vietato! Seghe ci si tirano all'inferno car0 Cioni .. . no scusa, allora ho sbaghato, senz'offesa. 10 volevo anda' all'in- ferno . . . Tu ti dovevi fa' le seghe da vivo .. . Come? 10 'un me le so' fatte per venimele a fa' in paradiso . . . Spiacente.. ..(Benigni 71)

Besides anger at the indifference of God to the physical urges of his subjects, there is an admiration at the devil's ability to provide earthly pleasures and jealousy at the devil's appropriation of Mammina's body. Cioni angrily curses God's indifferent silence.

Te magari all'inferno ti tromba il diavolo e a me quassu' m'incula il mondo . . . Te sotto terra e il diavolo ragiona, io sotto il ponte e Iddio zitto, silenzio! . . . meglio il foco del diavolo a cazzo ritto, che l'acqua de Dio a palle gonfie. (Benigni 72)

The one character that might be expected to offer a spiritual rebut- tal to Cioni's hedonism does nothing of the sort. Don Waldemaro, the village priest, has a name that sounds like, "valley of the sea," imply- ing that any understanding of the Earth is foreign to him. He echoes Cioni's extreme materialism and hedonism. Waldemaro's reasoning against masturbation is not spiritual but pragmatic and physical and he also abuses Mario in very coarse language (Benigni 93).

When Mario's friend and rival for his mother's affection, Bozzone, first speaks about God, he is an angry atheist who insists that the only cleverness about the God business is that He does not exist. After dar- ing God to prove Himself, Bozzone expounds on the dictatorship of the proletariat in the jargon of dialectical materialism. But Bozzone's tune changes after he couples with Cioni's mother, a sexual experience he takes as proof of God's existence (Benigni 140). A transformed Bozzone restates a scholastic argument about the existence of God, although in Bozzone's version the prime mover becomes the prime builder (Benigni 132).Bozzone's conversion demonstrates that nothing in the film is a match for the power of lower bodily desires, not even old age. Ignorante says, "trombata anziana, trombata sana," before Cioni's gang heads to the tango dance hall frequented by middle-aged couples. The encounter with Bozzone also re-invigorates Mammina. The morning after, she is the image of a woman half her age and Cioni remarks that she looks like the good fairy from Pinocchio.

In the film's emphasis on sex, interestingly enough, there is never any mention of pragmatic arguments against promiscuity such as venereal disease. The only threat to the physical impulses in Cioni's world comes from cancer. Cioni's father died from cancer and the only ill character in the film, Gelone, complains not so much that he has cancer but that his condition has caused his stomach to swell. Yet the presence of cancer paradoxically reaffirms the supremacy of the physical since cancer is a disease in which the body attacks itself. So even in illness, the body rules the spirit confirming the physicality of Cioni's worldview.

The emphasis on sex and physicality is also developed through female characters who humiliate Cioni. The film continues the theme of anger at women from Cioni's outburst at the barmaid Wanda in the Cioni monologue. In the opening scenes at a movie theater, there are placards advertising films in which women are either threatened by violence or sexually abused. Titles include La supplente and I sette vio- lentatori delle donne anziane. There is even an affront to motherhood. The baby of the theater owner or projectionist sleeps in a crib under a poster advertising the film, Lo strangolatore delle gestanti. In traditional Italian society motherhood had been sacred, whereas in the behavior that Cioni's countrymen see on the movie screen, women, including mothers, are subject to barbaric violence.

The behavior of Cioni's Mammina helps to explain his trouble with women. Mammina is anything but a stereotypical Italian mother. Her harsh words crush Mario's self-esteem. She calls him a toad and an earthworm -an interesting choice of metaphors. The earthworm's constant ingesting and defecating locomotion corresponds to Cioni's very physical worldview. Worst of all, Mammina tells Cioni how she tried to abort him but failed and she curses his insistence on being born. There is a naturalistic sub-text to her statements. According to Mammina, Cioni is unworthy of life. He is a physical anomaly, des- tined to a solitary, sterile existence. This sentiment is re-enforced in the cold calculations of Martini, the father of the lame Adelina whom Mammina wants Cioni to marry. Martini, played magnificently by Benigni's actual father Luigi, lists the cruelly practical reasons why Adelina should accept a marriage with the unstable and unattractive Cioni. By Martini's cold calculation, Cioni's physical weakness will lead to his early demise and material gain for Martini who can expect his daughter to inherit Cioni's field.

This cruel naturalism carries over into all of Cioni's encounters with women. Like the lame Adelina, many of the women Cioni meets are physically damaged such as the two women at a disco who have casts on their injured limbs. Yet Cioni is unable to speak to women even when they show interest in him. In one scene two feminists pick up a hitch- hiking Cioni and take him to the Casa del Popolo for a debate on women's rights. One of the feminists seems sexually receptive to Cioni and gives him a seashell and her telephone number, later obliterated by his Oedipal rival, Bozzone. Yet Cioni is unable to respond to her invitation without using the formal Lei, signaling distance rather than availability.

The town homosexual, Furio, nicknamed Signorinaaa, lays out the new paradigm for sexual relationships in the post-peasant world. Cioni complains to Furio about his dilemma as an omo moderno. Furio responds that there is no modern man. Furio explains that as the town bugger, he has a role just as the town idiot and town priest had a role in the past. But Cioni, the modern man, simply does not count. Despite the economic and cultural changes brought by the post-peasant econo- my, Cioni and his companions remain tied to the mentality of their forefathers and have not adapted as easily as the women in the film. Convinced by Furio's argument, Cioni decides to act on Mammina's curse against him by attempting suicide by eating a poisonous mush- room. But even in his attempt to kill himself, Cioni is unsuccessful.

In the film the old order of the peasant world and the certainties of religion, the Party, and sex are in flux. The Party is no longer the revo- lutionary presence leading the working classes to a Marxist paradise. The Communist Party leader, Enrico Berlinguer, despite having his name in the film's title, is a marginal scarecrow in a field. God is blamed for His infuriating indifference to Cioni's physical predica- ments and the inadequacy of traditional religious formats to post- boom reality. Finally the film blames women for being better able to adapt to post-peasant life than men. Although the film is set in the provinces, there is not a single female character playing a traditional family role. Cioni's Mammina is a merry widow who tried to abort him and then breaks generational taboos by coupling with Cioni's friend Bozzone. For Cioni and his gang, the post boom world means an increasing alienation from the land, from women, and from God. In an often-cited scene Bozzone recites a fatalistic lament in verse.

Noi siamo quella razza che non sta troppo bene, che di giorno salta i fossi e la sera le cene. Lo posso gnda' forte fino a diventar fioco, noi siamo quella razza che tromba tanto poco. Noi siamo quella razza che a1 cinema s'intasa per veder donne ignude e farsi seghe a casa. Eppure la natura ci insegna sia sui monti sia a valle che si pub nascer bruchi pe' diventar farfalle. Ecco noi siamo quella razza che l'6 fra le piu strane, bruchi siamo nati e bruchi si rimane. Quella razza siamo noi. E inutile fa' finta, ci ha trombato la miseria e siamo rimasti incinta. (Parigi 9)

This overview of Benigni's earliest works in the theater, television, and film reveals how the origins of Benigni's wit lie in the social and economic transitions that affected peasant life after the late 1950s. The energy and ebullience of Benigni's humor derives from the contrast between his background in the dialect and traditions of rural Tuscany and the mass culture of the post-boom era. It is interesting to note that in a period of increasing linguistic and cultural homogenization, the Italian public has gravitated toward popular comedians such as Benigni whose roots are in Tuscan language and humor. It may be pre- mature to identify a new cultural paradigm, a nuova toscanita, removed from the high culture usually associated with Tuscan literature. However one of the great strengths of Tuscan authors in the canon is an ability to transmit the authentic forms and earthy themes of the Tuscan dialect and rural culture to a national audience. Paradoxically and perhaps unexpectedly, Benigni is working in the same tradition.


Bowling Green State University

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