The Reeler


December 29, 2006

The Tiger and the Snow

Dreamy Benigni schticks it up -- in Iraq

Having milked the Holocaust for a few laughs (1997's Life Is Beautiful), the indefatigable Roberto Benigni has now turned his attention to Iraq with The Tiger And The Snow, a darker model of his earlier success. As with the earlier film, Benigni (co-writer and director) begins with no mention of his larger topic, easing the audience into it lest he be accused of bad taste until suddenly he's in the thick of tragedy, spinning it into his redemptive comic formula. How well it works depends mostly on your tolerance for Benigni's by-now familiar schtick, which is itself immune to petty details like context.

This time around, Benigni is Attilio -- a "poet," of course, as this gives Benigni an excuse for constant overstatement. "Teaching" a class involves the spouting of pseudo-aphorisms like "Only one thing is necessary to write poetry: everything!" while jumping all over the place and cutting to frequent reaction shots of delighted students. At night, he dreams of marrying Vittoria (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's real-life spouse) while Tom Waits personally provides the ceremony music. Vittoria continually rejects his advances, however, and Benigni gives the normally stalker-esque conventions of the romantic comedy a freaky new dimension when, while in Baghdad writing a biography of Iraqi poet Fuad (Jean Reno), Vittoria is put into a coma by a falling building. Attilio takes the accident as his cue to sneak into Iraq, masquerading as a surgeon, and frantically nurse Vittoria back to life; his creepy care of her unconscious body suggests Benigno, the creepy caretaker of the comatose in Pedro Almodóvar's Talk To Her, which probably isn't the reference Benigni had in mind.

Benigni's plot might be offensive if it didn't make a (possibly unintentional) point: Most Westerners are oblivious to all kinds of humanitarian disasters unless and until someone from their world is personally drawn into one. Still, Benigni's glimpses of looting, air raids and general savagery rank second to his frantic nurturing of Vittoria, a trivializing of war on par with A Very Long Engagement's use of the entirety of World War I as a staging ground for Audrey Tautou's love affair.

Leaving aside Benigni's seeming incapability to approach major world events as anything other than springboards for his frenetic romancing, there is still the issue of his Woody Allen-ish tendency to assign himself an improbably hot, much younger, still-obsessed ex-lover (in this case, Emilia Fox). Benigni's method for wooing women and his audience are the same: a relentless attack passed off as an attempt to charm (or maybe just exhaust) both into submission. All the exertion, however, only underlines the futility of his cause: "Thank you for your efforts," an Iraqi doctor tells him when he returns to Baghdad with a full load of medical supplies, "even though they are just a drop in the ocean."

To echo the defense so often offered for Life Is Beautiful, The Tiger and the Snow is an idea of potentially bad taste that has obviously been made with the best of intentions (it's clunky regardless, notably so when Reno observes that "Saddam Hussein didn't like free spirits," which would seem to be the least of the issues at stake). It's still very possible, however, to be annoyed by Benigni himself, whose mix of sentimental music and dream imagery will never recall Fellini no matter how hard he tries, and whose courtship, after two hours of straining, doesn’t convince any more than the May-December pairings of Woody Allen. The Tiger And The Snow isn't any more of a disaster than Life Is Beautiful, but in its wake Benigni's formula is more predictable, and what's left is a lot of mugging and a lingering dissatisfaction with the director's inadequate response to a very real problem.

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