We walked into a plush four-screen cinema in the affluent suburbs of east Memphis and took our place in the ticket line. Then we saw it—a sign posted on the ticket booth glass: LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL HAS SUBTITLES. (IT IS NOT IN ENGLISH.)
You could say that sign proved the ignorance and intolerance of the American mass movie audience. You could also say that it certifies Roberto Benigni’s tragi-comedy about love and fascism as a real pop cultural phenomenon. You’d be right both ways.
Obviously the theater staff put up that sign after shocked and outraged customers demanded a refund when they learned that this little Italian movie was actually in Italian. But it is a measure of Benigni’s achievement that his film is showing, and finding an audience, in venues where the last foreign language movie probably featured Asian martial arts. In a season when Hollywood offerings run the usual gamut from teen romance to gutter gunplay, Life Is Beautiful (see "A Sweet But Painful Joy," page 62) proves that there is still a place in the American movie market for ambitious popular art.
Like many boho-Americans of a certain age, I first encountered Roberto Benigni in the 1986 film Down by Law. Benigni played a new arrival from Italy who ended up in the Orleans Parish jail. All through the movie, Benigni’s character kept reciting the single line "It’s a sad and beautiful world." It was one of those signifying one-liners on the order of Casablanca’s "Play it again, Sam" and "What we have here is a failure to communicate," from Cool Hand Luke.
In the years before and since that obscure moment of American glory, Benigni was busy being a major comedy star in Italy. He’s sort of their younger and happier Woody Allen. Somewhere along his career path he also picked up a minor obscenity conviction for a particularly scandalous stand-up routine about Pope John Paul II.