Haven’t the people of Iraq suffered enough? Nearly four years of destruction, torture and chaos, a monumentally botched occupation and reconstruction, and now a new indignity: serving as collective straight man to spasmodic Italian actor-director Roberto Benigni in his bafflingly obtuse The Tiger and the Snow. In an apparent attempt to revive the lukewarm blend of tragedy and comedy achieved in his concentration- camp-set Life Is Beautiful, Benigni here plays out a madcap tale of romantic obsession against the backdrop of the early days of the Iraq invasion, setting a large chunk of the action inside war-ravaged Baghdad. The results are neither profound nor funny, but merely uncomfortable. A hubristic failure at risky humor, The Tiger and the Snow provides Benigni his own Michael Richards moment.
Benigni casts himself as Attilio, a university professor and poet who is shown early in the film exhorting platitudes on poetic inspiration to a lecture hall of multicultural students, who laugh with unrealistic spontaneity at his Robin Williams–esque antics. Bouncing around the room, Attilio tells his class—unironically—”to be happy, you must suffer.” (Not only is Attilio fake-funny, but his poetry is fake-good: The only samples we hear are juvenile singsong rhymes cooked up for his teenage daughters’ bedtime.) This doggerel Dante has his own Beatrice: a woman who appears to him as his loving bride in recurring dreams, and then seems to materialize in the flesh as Vittoria (Benigni’s real-life wife and producer, Nicoletta Braschi), a writer working on a biography of Attilio’s friend and colleague Fuad (long-faced Jean Reno). A celebrated Iraqi poet, Fuad has come to Rome to speak on the eve of the American-led invasion.
Attilio sets upon Vittoria immediately, insisting that she is literally the woman of his dreams, ignoring her repeated brush-offs and stalking her from city to city—a would-be Attila, obsessed with securing Victory. Outside of movieland, such behavior would be considered criminal or deranged, but not so in the logic of the bad romantic comedy. Vittoria meets Attilio’s persistent overtures with coy rebuttals, rather than the reactions of pity or disgust one would more realistically expect.
The film shifts from banal to tasteless as the war begins. Fuad calls Attilio from Baghdad, informing him that Vittoria has been severely injured and lies near death at the hospital. Refused a ticket to Iraq at the airport, Attilio impersonates a doctor in order to bum a ride with an Italian Red Cross contingent transporting medical supplies. Once there, he commandeers an abandoned, blasted-out bus in the desert, rides through the iconic Swords of Victory arch (re-created on a set in Tunisia), and invades the hospital where Vittoria lies comatose. Hanging out near a crumbling mural of Saddam, Attilio pesters a strangely acquiescent Iraqi doctor, who sends him on a series of quixotic quests to find the precise macguffins—pardon, medicines—needed to relieve Vittoria’s close-to-fatal head wound. While Iraqis scramble to escape falling debris, Attilio shoves past looters in a bazaar to find an oxygen tank for Vittoria. The massive suffering around him is merely an annoying hindrance.
As Vittoria lies silent in a dusty corner of the hospital, Attilio sits at her bedside and cracks jokes, but to no avail. “She doesn’t answer!” Attilio jabbers in thickly accented English to the Iraqi doctor, who makes no indication that he might need to tend to hundreds of others. “She doesn’t move! She doesn’t react in any way!” Judging from the near-silence at a recent press screening, audiences will likely offer a similar response.
One might wish to grant Benigni some modicum of props for attempting once again to take on such politically volatile subject matter in a comedy, but while we do live in an era of socially risky, taboo-busting farce, Benigni ain’t Borat.
Perhaps somewhere in Tiger lies a dim Bush parable: Attilio as bumbling, narcissistic go-it-aloner, stumbling into Iraq with ill-conceived intentions. But the metaphor won’t hold: The outcome of this mess we’re in won’t leave Bush a benighted romantic.