February 17, 2000
The Italian comedian couldn't resist playing the clown, either, when his Holocaust fable recently screened for 320 Los Angeles high school students at the Museum of Tolerance.
He grinned maniacally as the teens applauded and cheered his movie. He clowned around with his microphone. When someone asked if he liked Buster Keaton, he rolled his eyes and shouted, "mama mia!"
But Benigni showed a serious side, too. He thanked the students, who gushed about his movie, in which he portrays a charming buffoon who invents a game to protect his 5-year-old son from the horrors of the Holocaust.
Benigni said that he got the idea for the film when he decided to place a clown in the most extreme of situations: a concentration camp. The idea scared him, he confided. His friends warned him that he risked alienating his comedy fans. And Benigni was terrified that his antics would offend Holocaust survivors. To avoid doing so, he sent all the drafts of his script to members of the Milan Jewish community.
When one student asked Benigni about his 5-year-old co-star, Giorgio Cantarini, the director said that the boy caught his eye when he showed up for the audition, without his mother, wearing an enormous overcoat. "He looked like a little clown," Benigni said.
Cantarini did not know how to read, so he had to learn all his lines by heart. One of his first questions to Benigni was, "What does the word 'Jewish' mean?" He had never heard the word before.
When another student asked Benigni how he liked Los Angeles, the director flashed an especially large smile. "Being a director in L.A.," he said, "is like being a Christian in the Vatican!"-- Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor