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Once More With Glee: Quixotic Comic Roberto Benigni Tiptoes From The Holocaust To Dante’s Inferno

10 years after winning the Best Actor and Best Foreign Film Oscars for “Life is Beautiful,” Italian alterna-clown Roberto Benigni is still best known for this loved and loathed Holocaust comedy.

Now he’s trying his hand --  not at death camp romps or dismemberment comedies -- but at…wait for it.. Dante’s Divine Comedy. It is, if you can picture this, a one-man, poetic-comic bi-lingual deconstruction of Dante’s medieval, cosmos-bestriding epic of sin, salvation and eternity. Benigni is making his U.S. stage debut at the Davies Symphony Hall on May 26 with “TuttoDante,”an original (to say the least) journey from current and daily events to the Divine Comedy.

After sold out shows in Paris and London, Benigni is taking his show and bringing it to New York, Boston, Chicago and Canada.  While Benigni became well-known in the States for his roles in early Jim Jarmusch films, such as Down By Law and Night on Earth. He went on to make other films, an ill-received “Son of the Pink Panther” (even though Benigni is very Clouseau-esque), and a bomberous Pinocchio in 2002, which has the distinction of being one of the costliest films in Italian cinema.

But talented clown that he is, Benigni will probably always be known for attempting to tackle the Holocaust with humor. Though Benigni had already challenged people's notion of what is acceptable comic subject matter by making "The Monster" (1994), a comedy about female dismemberment, "Life Is Beautiful" created a much greater controversy. The film, Benigni clarified, is not a comedy about the Holocaust; it's a movie by a comedian about the Holocaust. At the time, Begnini told Salon (AKA me), “Some people felt in a very, very strong way like I touched something untouchable," During the press conference at Cannes, one French journalist accused Benigni of mocking the victims of the Holocaust, declaring that he was "scandalized" by the picture. Another reporter said she "loathed this film," and the London Guardian wrote that it is "a hopelessly inadequate memorial to the vile events of the Holocaust." That same year, Jerusalem's mayor awarded Benigni with a special commendation for "furthering the universal understanding of Jewish history."

Which is pretty interesting considering that some Israelis  were all up in the Pope’s grill last week for using the words “killed” instead of “murdered” about the Holocaust.