When: June 12 2009
When Italian clown Roberto Benigni took the best actor Oscar in 1999, after his Life Is Beautiful had won for best foreign film earlier the same evening, he told the crowd at the Los Angeles County Music Center, “Thank you. This is a terrible mistake, because I used up all my English!” It wasn’t true then—he went on to give a remarkable speech in which he wished he were Jupiter so he could kidnap everybody and make love to them—and it still isn’t. Benigni seems to have unlimited stores not just of English but of gusto for speaking it, and his current subject seems to juice him up: The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri’s cosmic epic, in which the 14th-century poet tours hell and purgatory with Virgil, and then paradise with the love of his life Beatrice. “Every single verse you feel that he’s talking to you!” Benigni shouts, sounding an awful lot like Dick Biondi. “That he knows you deeply, profoundly, so it’s like a dear friend. When I was reading Divine Comedy I realized that it was Dante reading me. . . . I felt like to call him by phone—‘Hey! Is that Dante Alighieri? I want just to talk with my closest friend!’”
Benigni’s one-man touring show—In Tutto Dante, coming to town for a single performance Friday—combines commentary on current events, personal stories, talk about the poem, and a recitation of a canto from it. Benigni has taken the show throughout Europe, choosing from a variety of The Divine Comedy’s 99 cantos, but for this North American tour he’s concentrating on the fifth canto, which is not only the most famous—it’s the point where Dante passes through the entrance to hell, with its inscription abandon all hope, you who enter here—but also kind of racy: “about lecheries, you know,” Benigni says. “Lustful. About sex, about passions, about love especially. It concern us.”
Plus: see Tony Adler's Q & A with Benigni.