Running Time: 114 minutes.
Rated: Rated M.
If recent films such as Crank are short on humanity and compassion, this cannot be said of Roberto Benigni's The Tiger and the Snow, which like his Oscar-winning Life Is Beautiful, explores the power of love.
In Life Is Beautiful, Benigni took the viewer into the hell of the Holocaust. The Tiger and the Snow takes the viewer into the contemporary nightmare of the war in Iraq, and if Benigni's new film lacks the comedic brilliance of Life Is Beautiful (which can be compared to an extent with Chaplin's The Great Dictator), it is more believable and in some ways more profound.
Set in 2003 just prior to the invasion of Iraq, Benigni plays Attilio, a poet and university lecturer who is obsessed with a beautiful woman (Nicoletta Braschi), who invades his dreams. Attilio's marriage has collapsed. His daughters Emilia and Rosa (Chiara and Anna Pirri) stay overnight with him sometimes, but he is preoccupied and distracted.
The woman in his dream is not an allegorical figure or a figment of his imagination, he tells fellow lecturer Ermanno (Guiseppe Battison): she is real. And this is confirmed when one day she appears at a meeting of writers in Rome held to honour Iraq's leading poet, Faud (Jean Reno), who is living in exile in Paris, and is one of Attilio's closest friends.
The woman's name is Vittoria, and she will have nothing to do with Attilio, who behaves like a fool in her presence. Vittoria is writing Faud's biography, and when Faud returns to Baghad, fearing there will soon be a war and wanting to be amongst his own people, Vittoria goes with him to finish the book.
Attilio only becomes aware that Vittoria has gone to Iraq when Faud tells him by phone that she has been mortally wounded in a bombing raid. Galvanised into action, and against impossible odds, Attilio leaves for the war zone immediately in a medical transport, determined to save her life at any cost.
In Life Is Beautiful, Benigni the clown set out to show that laughter like love has a transcendent power. He pokes fun at the tragic view of life by refusing to take the Nazis seriously, and he gives heart to his little son, thus saving him from the gas chamber, by refusing to accept that Auschwitz is the only reality. The film was criticised at the time because what is essentially an allegory about the saving power of love (the Divine Comedy) was set in Auschwitz, a black hole of human making that admitted no light even for those few who survived.
The Tiger and the Snow is also an allegory, but it has its feet more squarely on the ground. Attilio may be a poet who loves language and struggles to convey the richness of life ('The word has to be right, or nothing is right', he tells his students). But he is also self-preoccupied, and obsessed with his own needs.
In fact, for some of the first part of this rather long film, in the dream sequences in which he is clothed only in his underpants at his own wedding (at which singer-songwriter Tom Waits contributes a pertinent song, and a parking inspector is waiting to book him for illegally parking his car outside), Attilio is tiresome, and so are some of his antics. We can see why Vittoria doesn't trust him. There is something insular and self-serving in his clown's mask.
But the moment Attilio is in war-torn Iraq, struggling to find even the most elementary drugs to save Vittoria's life, he is forced for the first time to think beyond himself. It is not only laughter that liberates us (sometimes only for the moment) from tragic existence, but as Attilio discovers, a dogged refusal to accept that the world and oneself cannot be changed.
Benigni's tragi-comedies are unique in cinema, and becoming more so. Coloured with the director's loving, idiosyncratic view of life, they are not always completely successful, or everyone's cup of tea. But they are a necessary respite from a diet of violence and a reminder that life can still be beautiful.
Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.