March 24, 2008

The Dante Schlub

Now that I'm officially trying to be a writer, I have occasionally been producing column-length pieces and firing them off in the hope of getting a few small publication credits under my belt. Here's one that just got rejected, of which I was slightly too fond to just consign to oblivion on my hard drive.
For most in the English-speaking world, Robert Benigni will be remembered (if at all) for his acceptance speech at the 1998 Oscars, during which he famously — if fruitlessly — asked to kiss all of assembled Hollywood. (He singled out Sofia Loren in particular, onstage with him to present the award. She could not be persuaded.) Since then, the Academy — and, indeed, the rest of us — seem to have decided that America's duty to Benigni has been done, and the actor-cum-director-cum-writer has slipped, in this country, into the comfortable obscurity of internet message boards and grainy YouTube videos.

In Italy, however, he has remained a national fascination, attracting the sort of media attention normally reserved for vacant starlets with smouldering good looks and youthful binge-drinking habits. Balding and fifty-five years old, Benigni has neither; his most dangerous addiction is apparently Dante's Divine Comedy, a love which he has successfully parlayed into a lucrative series of public readings and lectures. These have won the adulation of much of the public but, predictably, the literati have been less than impressed. One particularly sour critic remarked that Benigni’s readings transformed the Divine Comedy into little more than "a human comedy" and — even worse! — "a sort of Madame Bovary." (The comparison may offend Flaubert fans, but the idea of the Italian language's greatest masterpiece being condemned as "too French" has a nicely Dantesque irony about it.)

Recently, one of Benigni's performances was broadcast on RAI Uno, Italy's flagship, state-run television channel. With a giddy lick of his lips, the actor launched into a fiery, gravitas-soaked reading of Canto V of the Inferno; his consonants were sharp, his voice stentorian, and even a listener with no knowledge of Italian would have grasped the hell and brimstone of which he spoke. As he uttered the last line — "And I fell, as a dead body falls" — he seemed to be blinking away tears; the studio audience rewarded him with an exuberant standing ovation.

This sort of public recital of Dante is probably how the poet would have preferred it; his distaste for unauthorised reproductions of his work was as egregiously severe as that of today's most stubborn music executives (some scholars have even suggested that his strict terza rima meter was intended as a sort of "watermark" against pre-Gutenberg copyists who felt like fiddling with his verse). Far better, thought the poet, to have his work distributed via recitals, so that his original text would always remain unsullied.

Dante's bias towards festive readings notwithstanding, Benigni's latest histrionics failed to impress Franco Zeffirelli, another of those Italian film types who occasionally emerges to wow the Anglo world and then disappears back to Europe. In a recent interview, Zeffirelli called Benigni "a fairground marvel," which gets, perhaps, at what the elites find most irritating about the actor: his mass appeal. A common celebrity interpreting the Pilgrim? Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.

The anti-populist sentiment is unfounded, of course, since Dante was nothing if not an everyman. His decision to present the Comedy in "vulgar" Italian (as opposed to the elegant Latin of other contemporary works) brought literacy to whole new classes of Florentines — early copies were used more often as language-learning texts than as library starters — and helped dismantle the monopoly held on literature by the monasteries and universities of the time. In a way, Benigni is attempting to do the same thing by taking Dante to the airwaves, but Zeffirelli seems unlikely to be convinced. "How could a Marxist like him understand the depths of Dante, anyway?" the director grumbled. "He's a dud on all accounts, and I don't like him."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The New Yorker doesn't know what it's missing.

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