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NEWS | Sunday, 27 April 2008

A night in paradise

Karl Schembri

As expected, Roberto Benigni shook the islands last week when he stormed from the land of Dante to recite the last canto from the 700-year-old masterpiece.
Wherever this Oscar-winning director and comedian goes, his presence is always a spectacular circus-like event. Exuberant, and unpredictable, the maverick Italian who touched the world with his film La vita è bella made Malta dream on his short stay here.
His arrival here is the result of the relentless work of Dr Gloria Lauri-Lucente, expert of Italian and deputy dean of the Faculty of Arts. Upon learning that the authoritative Dante scholar Robert Hollander from Princeton University was about to come here for an exhibition of images from the Divine Comedy, she did all she could to get the professor to convince Benigni to accompany him here.
The rest is history, as we all witnessed it last week, from Benigni’s bubbly press conference to his crazy graduation, calling on the President to grant him political asylum from Berlusconi and to make him a Knight of Malta as in Italy there is “only one” and he happens to be back in power.
The night dedicated to Dante was the cherry on the cake. His versatility meant he could switch from slapstick to the serious recital and explanation of the last canto from Dante’s paradise in his impeccable way.
Benigni has managed to popularise the largely inaccessible poem to the masses as his verse by verse exposition explains its universal humanity.
As Hollander put it, Benigni was risking losing his newly earned honorary doctorate after he failed to answer some of his pressing questions about one of the greatest works of literature. So he either recited it well, or he would revert back to Mr Benigni.
With the help of Karmenu, the cameramen closest to him under the stage who inadvertently found himself giving him crucial hints to pass the Hollander test, Benigni promised us all to export our language to Italy, most notably our widespread exclamation that can be used in any context, ‘illallu’.
Never mind it’s a corruption of the name of God, a euphemism used by saints and sinners alike; we will be waiting with bated breath for Benigni’s internationalisation of our great word of surprise.
Meanwhile, we will keep savouring in our memory that impeccable night with the master of comedy, and of the Divine Comedy, which ends with “the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars”. Illallu!

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