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French Version

Roberto Benigni's latest film adventure takes moviegoers to Baghdad


Watching Roberto Benigni in his new film, "The Tiger and the Snow," which is set in more or less present-day Iraq, one finally realizes what went so wrong with his last one, the not only bad but startlingly annoying "Pinocchio" (2002).

In both films, the camera is trained on Benigni throughout and the acting job is the same: tap-dancey, manic, run-at-the-mouth, anti-formal, anti-suave. In short, anti-Brando.

The difference is that in "Pinocchio" Benigni's character has to overcome a challenge no more imposing than learning how to behave like a good little puppet, while in the new film - as in the director's Oscar-winning concentration-camp semi-comedy "Life Is Beautiful" (1997) - his character, Attilio, is up against something serious, in circumstances so grave that survival requires him to weave an illusion of safety and a make-believe version of events to keep terrible reality at bay.

In "Pinocchio," Benigni's irrepressible pep comes off like wound-up autism. But the same pep, when it's framed as a brave reaction to a bad situation, is suddenly close to magic.

In "The Tiger and the Snow," Attilio is a poet living in Rome whose elusive beloved, Vittoria, travels on a literary project to Iraq just as the country is invaded in March 2003.

There she promptly succumbs to a near-fatal injury and enters a deep coma.

Desperate in his fear that she will die, Attilio scrambles to Baghdad, reaching Vittoria's hospital to find it overcrowded, plagued by looters and thieves and in dire need of supplies.

The heart of the movie follows Attilio and his Iraqi poet-friend Fouad through the besieged city on successive urgent errands to find the medicine and equipment that could keep Vittoria alive.

The film is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, with some in the full-house crowd at the Beirut premiere Wednesday even clapping in delight at one sequence, in which a doctor tells Attilio the only thing to do for Vittoria is to pray to Allah.

"Pray to Allah?" Attilio frets. "The only prayer I know is the 'Our Father' in Italian." And then, eyes beseechingly uplifted, "Do you know Italian?"

Equally amusing is Attilio's recurring dream about marrying Vittoria (played by Benigni's bona fide wife Nicoletta Braschi). Standing in his underwear at the altar, he is variously interrupted by his cell phone, a traffic cop and the surprise discovery, in one installment, that she has turned into a kangaroo. (He hops after her down the aisle.)

What's truly great about the dream, though, is that the wedding's hired musicians happen to be headed by Tom Waits, who sings a new original, "You Can Never Hold Back Spring." That performance alone is worth the price of the movie ticket.

To its credit, "The Tiger and the Snow" (the name of a book of Attilio's poetry) does not attempt a critique nor even a serious depiction of the Iraq war. "Iraq" as it appears here is not quite a generic catastrophe, but it's close.

There are some people lying on their backs in rows of hospital beds, some dopey U.S. soldiers pointing machine guns, digitally added columns of smoke and periodic off-screen ka-booms.

In one inexplicable scene, Attilio and Fouad (who is played by Jean Reno, by the way) hold a conversation while sitting on a poor studio replica of the detached head of Saddam's statue in Fardus Square.

The arrogation of the deepening, real-life war for a big-screen love fable, if taken lightly as a nod of solidarity for the war's victims, and not a bit further, comes out as harmless enough.

Benigni's province is not politics but the uneven emotional terrain of tragedy and comedy stacked right on top of one another. In "The Tiger and the Snow," Attilio's fear of loss creates a tension that heightens the humor. And, unlike lesser humorists, Benigni pulls out constant surprises.

The film's most ridiculous scene, and one of the best, has the comatose Vittoria wearing scuba gear that Attilio has rounded up in lieu of a proper medical oxygen tank. The room is full of other junk he (inadvertently) looted - a huge foam cat, a flyswatter, a barber's chair.

More than taking to heart the charge of Pedro Almodovar's 2002 film, he talks to her; indeed he talks to her compulsively, torrentially. It's unclear whether all this talk does any good; the patient registers no response. But watching it is close to magic.

Roberto Benigni's "The Tiger and the Snow" opens in movie theaters throughout greater Beirut on April 20.

Beirut,04 10 2006
Tom McCarthy
The Daily Star
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