In the early ‘70s, when the protest of ’68 was leaving its place to the refusal of political commitment and the rediscovery of the "individual," an extremely foul-mouthed theatrical marionette made its rounds amongst the alleyways of papal Rome’s Borgo, between Saint Angelo’s Castle and Saint Peter’s Square.
Curly-haired, hands in his pockets, always ready with an obscenity and an explosion of surreal comedy in perennial ambush from his lips, this bizarre character, capable of making saints and madonnas fall from their pedestals with a tongue-lashing, even had first and last name just like that in police records of the time: Mario Cioni.
Pinocchio ahead of his time, Mario Cioni (to be precise, Mario Cioni son of Gaspare, the son of Giulia, as in the complete title of the piece), was at home in one of the basement theatres of a Rome suspended between terrorism (the beginning of the so-called "Lead Years") and the electoral success of the Communist Party in ’73. The latter was an event that permitted the experimental theater, which until then had performed in a score of spaces belonging to the counter-culture avant-garde, to obtain financing and therefore recognition from the government.
In this context, the monologue Mario Cioni was born, which Giuseppe Bertolucci, the poet and father of the filmdirector Bernardo, wrote portraying the schizophrenia, charm and irrepressible verbalism of a young debuting comic, just arrived in Rome from Tuscany, Roberto Benigni. Here is a statement of the time:
«Another theater is born in Rome, at via Alberico II°, a garage turned into a dual-use space: on the ground floor is a large room… underneath, in the hole that at the time of the garage served for working on the bottom of cars, another space has been excavated. It’s in this ruddy, old pit that we’ve witnessed two exceptionally interesting monologues.»
That evening in December 1975 represents the "magical" theatrical debut of a great personage of Italian theater. It is also true that there was some news of Roberto Benigni’s previous theatrical performances, that is, before his appearance into the Roman scene under the guise of Mario Cioni son of Gaspare, the son of Giulia. A daily paper wrote «Roberto Benigni is a young actor from Prato who’s been working in Rome’s basement theaters for a few years.». However, from the words of the critic, Franco Cordelli, one guesses that Benigni’s theatrical experience before 1975 had not yet let allowed the young actor’s full expressive potential shine through:
«Roberto Benigni is an actor whom we’ve seen at work in other shows, but that until now we couldn’t understand all his modern capacity of mocking reality, even the humanistically and politically more blackmailing.»
One cannot exclude that Benigni himself would consider his first experience as to his imminent artistic affirmation. Renzo Tian suggests as much:
«Roberto Benigni, originally from the Prato countryside, recently landed in Rome, where he has performed with an experimental group. But performing in a group meant little to him, so he’s hurled himself into doing solo theater for the first time.»
In light of these statements, we can therefore consider that of the Alberichino with Mario Cioni son of Gaspare, the son of Giulia of December 1975 as the true theatrical debut of Benigni, a debut that signaled the artistic career of Benigni whose success exploded at a particular historical-political moment.
The importance of the historical context of this event is suggested by Giuseppe Bertolucci himself, co-author and co-director of the piece, who in his preface to the text, Mario Cioni, writes:
«Mario Cioni originates from an objective of the ‘70s, in full ideological storm of the oral accounts of a young, Tuscan proletariat, which I gather and verbalize in the form of a monologue, offering that young man (Roberto Benigni) a kind of mirror in which he recognizes himself and discovers the quality and quantity of his immense comic talent.»
In confirming the genesis of the text, hence written four-handedly – a kind of plot at which the comic throws himself in a modulation of variable effects and non-stop invention – Giuseppe Bertolucci remembers the climate of the "ideological storm," precisely in which Mario Cioni fermented. What this "storm" was is clearly outlined: one needs to recall the phenomenon of terrorism of the Red Brigades that placed intellectuals and many young people in an existential dilemma: for or against violence? Could hatred of the bourgeois state, and so many other legacies of ’68, justify terrorism? Homicide? Leonardo Sciascia, in a famous stance («Neither with the state nor with the Red Brigades»), confirmed the malaise of the left who certainly didn’t identify with violent methods, but also didn’t feel itself so foreign to "underlying motivations" of the armed struggle. From here, the "ideological storm" that Giuseppe Bertolucci indicates, brought moreover up-to-date by the sudden electoral escalation of the Communist Party that, paradoxically, became the guarantor of the so-hated bourgeois state. What to do? Whose side to take? Or not to take? These were the dilemmas with which the various "Mario Cionis" of the time grappled, as they had a strange love-hate relationship with their then-leader, the Communist Berlinguer. Not by chance, the Bertolucci-Benigni monologue begins like this:
«… Berlinguere… o Berlinguèrre… Berlinguèrre… Berlinguere (it continues like this for a minute)… go, even on Sunday… Daaaadyyy. Oh, what could he be doing all this time in the toilet…»
It’s an illuminating start: one notes, in fact, the brusque passage from the political to the private. It’s in fact in the "ideological storm" that the "private" becomes refuge and shelter from the waves and wind-gusts of the "social," by now grown ungovernable and incomprehensible, due to envy. Mario Cioni therefore represents the introspective "watershed," the interiorization and banalization of great political themes that had influenced and appealed to the preceding generation of ’68. Free love, in Mario Cioni, is substituted by the "jerk off" (masturbation); the rebuttal of family relations, the battle for the occupation of the "toilet," used either for autoeroticism or to "shit." But careful: the "political" element thrown out the door in the text performed by Benigni, reenters through the window to call itself unexpectedly into play – after an astute and garbled panegyric of "do it yourself" sex – through paternal memories of the war.
«…Stalin! I tell him, ‘You know that you Russians are good, good… But give ‘em something to eat in Russia..!’ Look, Mario… I remember Stalin like it was now… look… I see him here. He put a hand on my shoulder and he told me, ‘Look, Cioni… ask what you want in Russia, but don’t ask for something to eat, ‘cause they ain’t got any! Look, I don’t eat, either,’ he told me, ‘Instead, Cioni… sing…’ And in fact, Mario, I sang… Stalin… (he is himself again)…»
It is exactly in this conclusive stage direction of the passage ("he is himself again") that the confusion of the poor Mario Cioni is revealed. It passes from a dialogue with his penis ("rubber dinghy" in the text) to a political reflection, fragile and in the grip of historical nightmares. It’s enough to think about the nightmare of a homosexual encounter with the leader of the neo-fascist party, Giorgio Almirante:
«… (addressed to the cock) but who were you in the dream? You have to tell me… to you I can tell you the story… I was on a street and felt so cold… I turn and I find you quite well… I was completely nude...!! I neared a piazza, rubber dinghy, and heard music playing, which I didn’t like much… and I approached and hear someone go: Italians! Italians..! I said… ‘Hey, what am I doing’ wit’ Almirante? God, what a piss! It rained, rubber dinghy, and I put you between my legs to not get you wet… They all went away and we were alone… was me, you and Almirante… Rubber dinghy, at a certain point, Almirante came down and he goes to me, ‘Italian, give me a hand job!’ I told him, ‘Big fascist, big Italian, big fairy…’»
If therefore, on one hand Mario Cioni carries around hatreds, resentments, dreams and utopias of ’68, on the other hand, he has to reckon with a new historical reality that no longer provides "ideological" securities. Benigni/Mario Cioni understands that ideology has betrayed him, leaving him finally nude in a toilet with the only possibility "in hand" being "masturbation," both metal-political and physical-sexual. Mario Cioni is, in reality, a poor flotsam and jetsam abandoned to the "Ideological storm" of his time: a poor devil who seeks refuge on the raft of onanism and hedonism that, however, at the beginning of the ‘80s would become the cultural matrix of the next generation, whose rebellion would take on aspects and slogans precisely hedonistic.
Parallel to the historical context in which the strange and unrestrained figure of Roberto Benigni-Cioni Mario performs, the particular cultural moment, specifically the theatrical, assumes prominence, which permits the young comic a debut in a new, even if small, theatre space. One should first of all consider that today, in all probability, a phenomenon analogous to that of Benigni-Mario Cioni would not be possible. Success passes more by way of the television screen and the move from television to theatre is much more frequent than vice-versa (except some sporadic case, think, for example, about Vincenzo Salemme, who owes much to his theatrical successes). The historical-cultural atmosphere breathed in Rome in the early ‘70s was not in fact characterized exclusively by the so-called "Lead Years" ("anni di piombo"), that is the height of the terrorist phenomenon, but was also rendered sparkling by the innovative drive that was spurred by the theatrical avant-garde to the search for new spaces, freely expressive and autonomous of cultural officiality (and flattening). Between the mid-‘60s and the mid-‘70s, in the heart of the historic center of Rome, tens of basement theatres are inaugurated and give way to a line-up of newly emergent theatrical subjects to "cut their teeth," that is to test out new things and to test out themselves. Roberto Benigni’s debut, who – as mentioned – already had some experience with theatrical groups behind him, not only arrives at the summit of the phenomenon, but radically alters and results wrong-footed for the same experimentation, ordaining it in a certain sense an artistic surmounting.
Mario Prosperi, theatre actor, author, witness and critic of those experiences, in his introduction to the publication of Mario Cioni, confirms:
«The apparition of Mario Cioni in the small hall of the Alberichino was the equivalent of a discharging shock.»"
The two dominating tendencies of the time were in fact, to begin with, that of the "holy director" who set his sights on reigning over the actor and the author, while the second tendency was properly that of the avant-garde which considered the theater by the same standards of an international resetting of language, attributing to the actor-character a secondary function, subordinate to the formalism (or aesthetic) of the staging.
«When Mario Cioni appeared at the Alberichino - Mario Prosperi continues - suddenly the rhetorical exaggerations and the maniacal shackles of both tendencies were exorcized. A young barbarian who would then become the Benigni of film and television… without any stage design (the curtain, a handkerchief that covers his face and which he takes up little by little with his lips, then spits out without using his hands, which remain for the entire show thrust into his pockets, the lights reduced to a single light hanging by a thread above his head), with a very loose word and a radiant glance, blessed with impertinence and self-irony, he engaged the public with his extremely personal itinerary of memories, dreams, stories, invectives, humble as a lump of earth and bold as an archangel, capable of keeping a daunting pace for nearly an hour without any gesticulation of hands or feet, without makeup and without costume, greatly efficacious witness of his class and his time, and an extremely eloquent political theme even in the absolute subjectivity of expression.»
The Benigni of Mario Cioni (or the Mario Cioni of Benigni; after all, the monologue is autobiographical) results therefore as sensational not only because he speaks comically about a sexual taboo like masturbation, as much rather for ideological, cultural and theatrical transgressive character with which the limits of ideology and its derived dramas are denounced. And all this going against the theatrical modes of the time. If in fact the tendencies of the theatre of the time were exactly those of the "holy director" of whom Prosperi speaks, as well as the subordination of the actor-character to the staging, and to the refusal of the text and verbal language, then the Benigni-Bertolucci Mario Cioni moves the goalposts. The moment of the actor and the author has arrived, which, without traditional direction, performs a written piece.
«In front of Mario Cioni,» concludes Mario Prosperi, «he was in front, as if by miracle, of a revival of the extinct species: hic est actor; and it was apparently so simple… It was enough to let himself go to his natural instincts, utilize his natural gifts of communication…»
«Towards the end of the ‘70s,» Pietro Favari writes in Authors and Dramaturges, First Encyclopedia of Contemporary Italian Theatre, edited by Enrico Bernard, «in Italy, the actor rebelled at the predomination of the director and newly proposed himself as the protagonist of the scene; such is the case, amongst others, of the Mario Cioni of Benigni-Bertolucci… The ‘real life’ predominated, the personal, which as was well known, was also political; in short, the will or necessity to recount one’s own business in public.»
One can easily imagine the enthusiastic reactions of the audience considering the growing and unstoppable success of Benigni until the Oscar. It’s rather interesting attaining the reactions of the critics; critics that immediately understood that they found themselves in front of a new phenomenon and of a scope, at the time hardly imaginable. Significant is also that in the critical anthology of Mario Cioni the signature of Renzo Tian is also present, a non-habitual patron of alternative spaces:
«In theatre, it doesn’t often happen that one experiences the surprise of a discovery, that is, to find oneself in front of something absolutely never seen before. It’s been a long time since we’ve found before an actor such as Benigni. It’s worth it to make sure and descend the spiral stairs that bring to the theatre at via Alberico II, number 29.»
Surprise and enthusiasm also on the part of Franco Cordelli («Mario Cioni is an obscene spectacle, violent, uncontrollable») and of Nico Garrone («Benigni’s capacity for fantastic evocation is in his voice: a human-orchestral voice, capable of gathering tens of shadings, in a continual quick-change artistry that is not, though, only illusionism, acrobatics, but the sign of an authentic dissociation, of a profound, modern instability and transience of the ego.»).
To document Mario Cioni, there are a score of faded black and white photos that despite their old fuddy-duddy, powdery grain, nothing takes away from the facial mask of Benigni, his marionette-like deportment with his hands in his pockets and with his head now thrown to one side, now to the other, as if a string was cut. This is how he was described in one review:
«Hands in pockets, still under a high-hung light, he begins in strict Tuscan dialect to scuffle with the accent of Berlinguer in a soliloquy where by the most unthinkable associations, the entire life of a young country boy enters little by little, bitterly conscious of the type of frantic society he’s living in, and nonetheless with an bitter sense of criticism, of irony and of revolt, blasphemous and tender, idiotic and genial, bizarre and common, all at the same time, a small masterpiece of unusual and charming workmanship.»
The cinema of Roberto Benigni is extremely faithful to his theatrical origins and is born right on the floorboards of the stage of a small experimental space. Benigni knows he has the experience of Italian commedia dell’arte behind him, and of the celebrated masks of Punchinello, Harlequin, etc. But the fidelity to the theatre in Benigni’s cinema is not limited to the mask. Benigni requires a dramaturgical writing, that is, theatrical, of the script. Not by chance, in fact Benigni’s films – written in collaboration with the dramaturge, Vincenzo Cerami – are some grand theatrical representations, that is, some real and proper 'staging'. The Theatre in the cinema of Benigni manifests itself, for example, in the narrative structure of his most famous films, Life is Beautiful and Pinocchio. In the first, as we recall, there is a comedy, a staging, which is meant to keep a Jewish boy from living the horrors and the traumas of the Holocaust. Pinocchio, on the other hand, is a true and proper theatre fable with many theatrical sets and schemes that take the place of Hollywood effects!
Personally, I think that cinema represents a form of continuation of the theatre with other and richer means. Benigni does nothing more than make use of cinema to diffuse his theatre based upon elements like comedy, surrealism and political undertaking, following the footprints of the great 'theatrical' cinema of De Sica-Zavattini and Fellini-Tullio Pinelli (Zavattini and Pinelli are both writers and theatrical authors). Therefore, Benigni today comes to occupy the same role that the Nobel Winner Dario Fo had in theatre, keeping in mind that the cinema of Benigni and the theatre of Dario Fo speak the same language of comic art and of dramaturgy.