I wasn’t very pleased when Roberto Benigni won Best Actor at the Academy Awards, danced on chairs and expressed a fervent desire to make love to everyone in the auditorium. I felt Tom Hanks deserved the statuette that year, for his portrayal of Capt. John Miller in Saving Private Ryan.
Having said that, I did think that Benigni did an amazing job in this simple yet powerful tale of a man who fights the Nazis for the sake of his kid, but uses humor to do it. One criticism I have heard leveled against it is that it trivialized the scope of the tragedy. I don’t think something like the Holocaust can be trivialized, nor was it the movie’s intent.
Benigni’s performance is quite interesting, in that its impact is mostly created by its contrast to its environment. He does more or less the same thing throughout the movie – play a cheerful character who finds a way to laugh at most forms of adversity. The situation around him goes from relatively benign danger to deadly horror, but he acts the same way. Up to a point, it is his disposition. Beyond that, it is his mask, worn for the sake of his son.
The scene that really stood out for me is the one where the mask visibly cracks. He encounters a senior Nazi doctor whom he has struck a rapport with before his incarceration. Their camaraderie was based on a shared love for riddles. Upon seeing him in the concentration camp, he feels that his camaraderie with the doctor might be his ticket out of there. It is a belief that is reinforced when the doctor calls him aside, presumably to give him some valuable information. Instead, the doctor asks him for the solution to a riddle that has puzzled him for a while. The look on his face speaks volumes. For a moment, he cannot comprehend how the good doctor could refuse to comprehend. Then despair settles in.