Wednesday, October 05, 2005

New Benigni film finds love, laughs in Iraq war

ROME (Reuters) - Having sought to portray a lighter side to Nazi concentration camps, Italian actor-director Roberto Benigni is now looking for love and laughs in wartime Iraq.

"The Tiger and the Snow," which Benigni screened in Rome on Tuesday, is a romantic comedy that in many ways follows the Oscar-winning blueprint of his 1997 film "La Vita e' Bella" (Life is Beautiful).

Benigni is again the star of the film, and again chases after the woman of his dreams -- his real-life wife Nicoletta Braschi.

But this time, he must follow her into Baghdad shortly after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. That takes the film, which was shot partly in Tunisia, into more difficult cinematic terrain as Benigni treads between fact and fiction in a war zone.

If his previous blockbuster offered triumphant images of U.S. troops liberating concentration camp victims, Benigni's latest work portrays them as occupying forces -- often nervous and unable to communicate with scared Iraqis taking cover.

He pokes fun at the U.S. search for weapons of mass destruction -- the original justification for the invasion -- playfully taking a fly-swatter and joking he has found one of the elusive weapons.


Benigni said his film was mostly a love story, and did not seek to judge U.S. soldiers. He pointed to compassionate moments between troops and his main character, a poet named Attilio De Giovanni.

"The soldiers are seen as a 'presence'. There are no judgements made, for sure," Benigni told a news conference.

"Clearly the feeling that arises against war, I think it's very, very, very strong," he said. But he added that this vision comes from a main character who, as a poet, loves life.

Benigni masterfully creates room for comic release in otherwise tense moments, making audiences laugh during a slapstick dash into a minefield and an uncomfortable run-in with soldiers at a U.S.-manned roadblock.

Attilio had strapped medical supplies to his body -- stoking fears among the U.S. troops that he was a suicide bomber wrapped with explosives. He shouts "I'm Italian", as one jittery, soldier clutches a pointed weapon.

The scenario drew immediate comparisons to the March killing of an Italian intelligence agent, Nicola Calipari, who was accidentally shot dead by U.S. forces at a roadblock in Baghdad. But Benigni said his scene was written beforehand, adding "fiction preceded fact".

Benigni won an Oscar as best actor for Life Is Beautiful in which he played a Jewish father who protects his son from the horrors of a concentration camp by pretending it's all a game.

He was criticised by some for taking a light-hearted approach to such a grim subject. Benigni on Tuesday tried to head-off worry that he was trying to sugar-coat war by using it as a backdrop for a romantic comedy.

"It is not an ideological film," he said. "Many modern works on war -- not just modern ones -- try to speak to the mind. They are documentary works, they have a very powerful point of view. This film speaks to the heart."

The film will be released in Italy on October 14, but it is unclear when it will make its way into U.S. cinemas. Braschi said producers had still not selected a U.S. distributor.

Hollywood is also eyeing other projects related to the war in Iraq.

A new U.S. television drama about the Iraq war, "Over There," from veteran producer Steven Bochco, debuted this summer, and Universal Pictures is developing a film about the battle for Falluja, with Harrison Ford lined up to star as a general.

No production date has been set for that project, which is based on the book "No True Glory."

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