October 4, 2005

New Benigni film finds love, laughs in Iraq war

By Phil Stewart

ROME (Reuters) - Having sought to portray a lighter side to
Nazi concentration camps, Italian actor-director Roberto
Benigni is now looking for love and laughs in wartime Iraq.

"The Tiger and the Snow," which Benigni screened in Rome on
Tuesday, is a romantic comedy that in many ways follows the
Oscar-winning blueprint of his 1997 film "La Vita e' Bella"
(Life is Beautiful).

Benigni is again the star of the film, and again chases
after the woman of his dreams -- his real-life wife Nicoletta

But this time, he must follow her into Baghdad shortly
after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. That takes the film, which
was shot partly in Tunisia, into more difficult cinematic
terrain as Benigni treads between fact and fiction in a war

If his previous blockbuster offered triumphant images of
U.S. troops liberating concentration camp victims, Benigni's
latest work portrays them as occupying forces -- often nervous
and unable to communicate with scared Iraqis taking cover.

He pokes fun at the U.S. search for weapons of mass
destruction -- the original justification for the invasion --
playfully taking a fly-swatter and joking he has found one of
the elusive weapons.


Benigni said his film was mostly a love story, and did not
seek to judge U.S. soldiers. He pointed to compassionate
moments between troops and his main character, a poet named
Attilio De Giovanni.

"The soldiers are seen as a 'presence'. There are no
judgments made, for sure," Benigni told a news conference.

"Clearly the feeling that arises against war, I think it's
very, very, very strong," he said. But he added that this
vision comes from a main character who, as a poet, loves life.

Benigni masterfully creates room for comic release in
otherwise tense moments, making audiences laugh during a
slapstick dash into a minefield and an uncomfortable run-in
with soldiers at a U.S.-manned roadblock.

Attilio had strapped medical supplies to his body --
stoking fears among the U.S. troops that he was a suicide
bomber wrapped with explosives. He shouts "I'm Italian," as one
jittery, soldier clutches a pointed weapon.

The scenario drew immediate comparisons to the March
killing of an Italian intelligence agent, Nicola Calipari, who
was accidentally shot dead by U.S. forces at a roadblock in
Baghdad. But Benigni said his scene was written beforehand,
adding "fiction preceded fact."

Benigni won an Oscar as best actor for Life Is Beautiful in
which he played a Jewish father who protects his son from the
horrors of a concentration camp by pretending it's all a game.

He was criticized by some for taking a light-hearted
approach to such a grim subject. Benigni on Tuesday tried to
head-off worry that he was trying to sugar-coat war by using it
as a backdrop for a romantic comedy.

"It is not an ideological film," he said. "Many modern
works on war -- not just modern ones -- try to speak to the
mind. They are documentary works, they have a very powerful
point of view. This film speaks to the heart."

The film will be released in Italy on October 14, but it is
unclear when it will make its way into U.S. cinemas. Braschi
said producers had still not selected a U.S. distributor.

Hollywood is also eyeing other projects related to the war
in Iraq.

A new U.S. television drama about the Iraq war, "Over
There," from veteran producer Steven Bochco, debuted this
summer, and Universal Pictures is developing a film about the
battle for Falluja, with Harrison Ford lined up to star as a

No production date has been set for that project, which is
based on the book "No True Glory."

(Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles)