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       Volume 10 |Issue 11 | March 18, 2011 |


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A Roman Column

Other Nations Other Heroes


Today, let us change the subject that is always there beneath the surface of things. Yes, let us talk of other things: of cricket, the weather, of music, of spectacle, of poetry. Let us speak of other cultures, their heroes, what they hold sacred, and also the things they deprecate and joke about. Speaking of jokes, the best loved Italian comedian, actor and film director, Roberto Benigni, who is a national hero in Italy, once said: 'We Italians can joke about anything, anything at all, except poetry.'

This is true. Rather, this is especially true for this otherwise, irreverent, effervescent and highly intelligent comic artist. As in his Oscar winning film, 'La Vita e Bella' (Life is Beautiful) he can make you laugh and cry at the same time. His love of poetry in general, and his particular passion for and profound knowledge of Dante Alighieri, the Tagore of Tuscany to Italians, has revealed a serious side to their beloved commedian, earning him respect and adulation from all quarters of the audience, including the academics. In the last few years, though his irrepressible comic side has not abated, he has been doing lectures and monolgues where he recites, from memory, cantos from the Divina Commedia, which he then brilliantly explicates with extraordinary depth of detail, and many amusing meanderings with his charcteristic exuberance and manic energy into political asides, inuendoes, jokes or ramblings on his own life.

He has taken his show, 'Tutto Dante' abroad to the US and Canada, but in his home country he draws packed houses as he does his one-man shows of poetry lectures, peppered with his political jokes, lampooning the political figures, especially Berlusconi. He spares no one in the government. And yet he was the man who was chosen to symbolise Italy at the Sanremo Music Festival, the most important and popular music competition of Italy, aired on Italian national TV, RAI 1. This year Italy celebrates 150 years of its unification, and this was the theme of the Sanremo music festival, viewed during its prime time slot by over 15 million Italian spectators. Benigni entered the Ariston Theatre riding through the audience astride a white horse and holding the Italian flag in his right hand. As soon as he stepped on stage the show started with his quicksilver, manic personality crackling with frenetic one-liners and jokes on Italy, its politicians, its media system.

"Our nation is 150 years old. Italy is just like a young girl, almost a minor." Benigni continued with his innuendoes about the scandal that involves Silvio Berlusconi and a supposed minor nicknamed Ruby the Heartbreaker: "We lost loads of time before we realised that Ruby wasn’t Mubarak’s granddaughter. All we should have done was to go to Egypt, go to the registry office and find out if Mubarak’s last name was Heartbreaker." After getting the audience's attention, Benigni leaped into the serious side of his persona, reading and explicating word for word and line by line the poetry of the Italian national anthem, Mameli's 'Fratelli d'Italia'. After an hour and a half of a spell-binding, and perhaps overlong, monolgue he ended by singing in a tremulous almost hushed voice, in a silent hall, the touching and simple refrain:

Stringiamci a coorte!
Siam pronti alla morte;
Italia chiamò.
Let us unite in a legion!
We are ready to die;
Italy has called.

Roberto Benigni got a standing ovation. What is even more extraordinary is how the government reacted. It speaks volumes for the maturity of the Italian government that notwithstanding the fact that Benigni and the other comedians at Sanremo mocked and made fun of Italian politicians including the Prime Minister on Italian State television, the very next day the President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, called up Roberto Benigni to congratulate him for his performance and his contribution to making the significance of the national anthem accessible to the average Italian citizen. There is, in fact, a move to make the video of Benigni's lecture on the anthem available to schools for teaching school children. Naturally, all the irreverent political asides and jokes which liberally spiced this lecture would be edited.

Such is how an assured democracy, by using its power of discernment of real talent and recognition of true dedication to values larger than mere politics, allows its citizens to speak their hearts and minds, gives them creative freedom, and still benefits from the fruits of that creativity.

Roberto Benigni, gets standing ovation wherever he goes. Although he declares he is an entertainer and not a teacher, his knoweldge and intellectual depth has won him the respect of many academics, and earned him a nomination for the Nobel for literature in 2007. There goes that N word! But the Italians love, respect and venerate their philosopher-clown, anyway. Whether he earned an Oscar or any other award, they value him for his worth which they recognize for themselves, because he has shown his dedication and love for all that is true and beautiful and valuable in Italy, like Dante and Verdi and the heores of the Risorgimento, and shared it with his people. The people know who is a real hero and they keep him in their hearts and do not dash him to the ground with the ebb and flow of rumours, trends and the pasing whims of a powerful few.

Italy has many heroes and many Nobel Laureates. I envy them. I envy them their confidence, their inclusive, generous spirit which knows that one person's recognition on the international stage does not mean the overshadowing of another.A worthy person with true ability can stand his own ground, create his own spotlight that even another genius cannot take away, as did poet Qazi Nazrul Islam as a contemporary of a giant like Tagore. In Italy, the Nobel laureate Dario Fo would not be jealous if another theatre artist like him, such as Roberto Benigni got the same award. In fact, many a summer during open-air performances in various Italian cities, Dario Fo and Roberto Benigni have shared the same event and stage. For example, Benigni recited and performed excerpts from Dante's The Divine Comedy, and Dario Fo gave lessons on Michelangelo. They share a common cause: the common love of the theatre and of the comic art as a social, political and humanistic undertaking. What the Nobel committee cited for Fo is true of Benigni too, in that they both emulate "the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden."

In Bangladesh too, our vision should be the bigger picture, the welfare of the downtrodden. If someone has dedicated his entire life to ways and means to improve the destiny of the poor, it is his lifelong engagement and his intentions that should resonate in our heart with love and gratitude and admiration, like laughter, like shared silence, like fragile words of poetry that in themselves maybe uselss to feed our stomachs but that nourish our dreams, even we have not made them come true yet. Whe someone shows us the way, helps us dream,he becomes a symbol of hope.Isn't that the purpose of heroes? Isn't that the purpose of awards, a way to give public recognition and ovation for someones humanistic efforts, our way to stand up and say, thank you?

Roberto Benigni recently on a show gave his support to Roberto Saviano, whose book 'Gomorra' denouncing the Camorra, and exposing the clandestine particulars of this Neapolitan mafia-like orgnisation became a best seller. This was followed by death threats by several Neapolitan 'godfathers'. The Italian Minister of the Interior has granted him a permanent police escort. Because of his courageous stance, he is considered a "national hero" by many including author-philosopher Umberto Eco.

At the show, Benigni hugged Saviano and said many funny and profound things, but three statements stand out for me: "It is not possible for a good person not to speak out against what is wrong or unjust, because if we don't, we are giving our approval."

He addressed Saviano's threatners, "But why do you want to kill a man for a book he has written? Why kill? If you want an eye for an eye, and he has written a book you don't like, well you should strike back by writing one too. Kill Saviano, with a book, your own book!" (I could replace the word book with the N-word, and the word kill with destroy).

And finally, he said, "When we write freely about evil, it's like writing fairytales. And we know how important fairytales are to keep us dreaming, for if the doors of dreams were shut we would die. But the purpose of fairytales is not to tell children that dragons exist (they know that anyway!) but that dragons can be defeated."

And so I end by waving my banner of fairytales, dreams and our ability to defeat dragons wherever they crop up in our struggle for truth, beauty, justice, humanity.



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