Appellate Judge James A. Stewart has had good luck with relatively blind picks so far, but that luck came to an end with this Roberto Benigni picture that's far from benign.
Life is ugly.
It sure is for Mario Cioni (Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful). When we first meet Mario, he and three loser friends are hanging out at a porn movie, where he's standing up to complain about the picture, which he calls "a bad education for the Italian people." Asked to leave, he and his friends do—though one is very reluctant. They're not lovable losers, either—they drop the f-bomb, the c-bomb, and the d-bomb in the first five minutes, and keep dropping them throughout the flick in a Blitzkrieg of profanity. You recognize Benigni right away in this bunch; he's the one with the checked jacket, brown shirt, and ugly tie, who looks like a sinister version of the hopelessly mismatched Ford Prefect from the BBC's version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. After a while, you'll get to recognize Bozzone (Carlo Monni), but to know him is to hate him.
When Mario does manage to get a round on the dance floor with an actual woman, he's hanging on for dear life. So his friends decide to brighten his day by setting him up to believe his mother is dead. Even though she's a shrew who constantly gives him positive reinforcement like, "You're ugly and stupid. You disgust the whole world…Mario, you're not a man. You're a worm," that doesn't do it. Instead, it sends Mario spinning into a despair that leaves him jerking off in front of a photo of a beautiful woman on a circus poster before collapsing and lapsing into troubled dreams.
Worse yet, his mother (Alida Valli) isn't glad to see him when he turns up. She's about ready to pitch him out a second-story window. Then she wants to fix him up with a woman who is called lame because of her bad leg, but considers Mario the truly lame one because of his personality. Mother even literally drags him into church, screaming at him so much that the priest chides her, "This is a church, not a brothel."
If you see the cover on Amazon.com or Netflix, you might get the idea that this is the "gentle comedy" some sites bill it as from the photo of young Benigni carrying a sunflower against a sky with wispy clouds. You'd be very wrong. There's probably a place for this black comedy among Benigni fans, but it's likely a place that has no sunflowers. When Berlinguer I Love You came up on the DVD Verdict docket, I was intrigued. I'd seen Benigni's Oscar-winning turn in Life is Beautiful, and had promised myself then that I'd check out more of his work. Sight unseen, I'd say Johnny Stecchino has to be better. If you're looking for the next Life is Beautiful, which is life-affirming despite its chilling setting, keep looking. There's nothing like that to see here.
While the film wasn't to my taste, several scenes (such as that first spin around the dance floor) show Benigni's early promise as a physical comedian. I even liked one scene where a hitchhiking Mario is picked up by two female hitchhikers. When one of the ladies likes him, she gives him a seashell as a gift. He immediately holds it to his ear and listens like the kind act is a new experience; later he practices calling her up with the seashell. More sympathetic moments like that one would have made this a much more enjoyable film, though I also liked a couple of the cynical lines, like Bozzone's claim that people convince themselves "that misery didn't fuck us, and we aren't pregnant."
Hapless heroes are nothing new to movies; they've been around since Charlie Chaplin. But you'd like them to win a round or two, to get the girl or at least have a ray of hope in their lives, even when the losers are as pathetic as Mario. No rays of hope are forthcoming here. Who wants to see some poor schlub just get clobbered over and over? After 90 minutes or so, it gets to be a little much. A sexual assault involving Bozzone, and its unlikely result late in the movie, completely destroyed any good will I had toward this picture. The scene doesn't exactly play out as crude farce, but as a building block in the wall of bleakness Berlinguer builds around Mario, leading to one final, small unkindness that abruptly ends this picture.
The film's faded and washed out in a few bright scenes, but it's mostly in good shape. There are no opening credits—it looks like they got lopped off. Whoops! No complaints about the sound, although the soundtrack is best for learning Italian profanities. It's not specified whether the film is anamorphic or non-anamorphic.
The movie's not rated, but it's "R" in nature, mostly for language and sexual dialogue.
Guilty, with Koch Lorber sentenced to 25 years of hard labor for the DVD cover alone. Track down Life is Beautiful instead if you want to see a good Benigni movie.
Oh, and Berlinguer isn't a woman, or one of Mario's buddies. He's an Italian politician, whose face is on a photo tacked to a scarecrow here. Check the Web link to Wikipedia if you really want to know any more.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
• Italian Theatrical Trailer
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