Rome Film Fest: Roberto Benigni on Meeting President Obama and His Return to Film

Roberto Benigni - Getty H 2016
Courtesy of Getty Images

“I’m ready for a film with Tom Hanks," the Oscar-winning director and actor adds.

Roberto Bernigni, the Academy Award-winning director and star of Life Is Beautiful, was slated to speak at Rome Film Fest last week during one of the fest’s “Close Encounters” sessions, but he changed the date last minute when he got the call to attend the White House Italian State Dinner, President Obama’s last in office.

“I apologize to all of you. I tried to keep my commitment, but you can’t say no when Barack Obama calls," joked Benigni at the rescheduled talk on Sunday. "You can’t say, ‘No, I’m sorry. I’m busy.'”

Benigni said the event, which also included director Paolo Sorrentino and Olympic fencer Beatrice Vio as part of the Italian delegation, was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. "It was like in Roman times being invited by the Emperor Hadrian," he said of the night.

He continued: "The White House wasn’t just white. It was green, white and red. Everything was white, red and green." And Benigni quipped about meeting the president: "I was expecting him to be painted in our national colors, too."

During the dinner, Obama joked: "And Roberto Benigni is here, and he promised not to jump on the tables,” referring to the director’s infamous outing at the 1999 Academy Awards when he climbed on top of the seats to accept the win for the best foreign-language film.

“He said he loved Life Is Beautiful,Benigni said about his personal meeting with Obama. “When he made his speech, it was a nice moment where he quoted me and then he came and hugged me. It was really touching and moving and I never will forget it. President Obama is one of the most extraordinary personalities of our time, and Michelle as well. Any other president will not be the same.” 

Benigni’s last film as a director was 11 years ago. Neither that film, The Tiger and the Snow, nor his 2002 interpretation of Pinocchio, gathered the same international acclaim as Life Is Beautiful, and he has spent the last decade mostly onstage and on TV. In the past 10 years, Benigni has broken ground on local television, performing his one-man show on Dante’s Inferno and the Ten Commandments on public broadcaster RAI.

“Well after The Tiger and the Snow, for the last 10 years, I’ve done Dante, and a lot of things on television. So I’ve changed my work. I used the popularity I had to communicate someone else’s poetry,” Benigni explained when asked if it was true he’s working on a new film.

“And though they said at the Rome Film Fest Tom Hanks paid tribute to me, I’d like to give it back,” he continued, referencing how Hanks said at the fest’s opening he would like to make a film with the Italian director. “I’m ready for a film with Tom Hanks! He’s one of the greatest actors of all time.”

In 1999, Benigni won the best actor Oscar for Life Is Beautiful, beating out Hanks, who was nominated for Saving Private Ryan. No one had won a best actor Oscar for a foreign-language role since Sophia Loren won for Two Women in 1962. 

Benigni admitted he is currently writing a new film, but didn't give many details other than saying he was returning to the comedy genre. “After all these experiences in the theater and television that have been fundamental to me,” Benigni said, “now I have this strong desire to do something that is really merry and funny and happy, full of this joy.”