March 08, 1999 12:00 PM

When people meet the Pope, the accepted protocol is to kiss his ring. For Italian actor and director Roberto Benigni, who was invited to screen his film Life Is Beautiful for His Holiness, that gesture of affection was clearly not sufficient. “I jumped on top of him, kissed him all over!” he says with glee, hopefully exaggerating a bit. “He was there next to me for three hours. He didn’t dedicate three hours to Clinton!”

The Pope is not exactly a movie buff. But Life Is Beautiful, which Benigni directed and cowrote, is a special case. In it, he plays an Italian Jew who shelters his son from the horrors of a concentration camp by pretending it is all an elaborate game. The tragicomedy, which costars Benigni’s wife, Nicoletta Braschi, 38, earned seven Oscar nominations including Best Film and Best Actor and has become the top-grossing foreign-language film ever released in the U.S.

Life’s success has introduced Benigni, 46, to a vast American audience, though he has been the Tom Hanks—and then some—of Italy for ages. “You can’t believe how much attention he gets,” says actor John Lurie, who shot a film with him in Italy in 1988. “It’s as if we were to combine Leonardo DiCaprio, Derek Jeter and the Pope.”

Despite his fame, Benigni—who is not Jewish—was understandably anxious about creating a Holocaust comedy. But the film received raves at a Jerusalem film festival—and around the rest of the world. The rubber-faced Benigni returns the enthusiasm. When he won the top prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, he hurled himself at the feet of jury president Martin Scorsese and kissed the other jurors. “There’s only one thing you have to be careful about with Roberto—what he’ll do when he bursts with joy,” says fan Sophia Loren. “So if he wins the Oscar, I’m going to watch out.”

The idea for Life Is Beautiful came from Benigni’s own father. Luigi Benigni, now 80, was imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp for two years after the German-Italian alliance collapsed; when he was liberated in 1945, he weighed only 90 pounds. Recounting his tale, he always sprinkled it with humor. “It was the way he was able to stand it,” says Benigni. “He was able to tell the story, to unite the tragedy and the drama, with a laugh.”

Amidst poverty and hardships, the senior Benigni taught his children to see the bright side of every situation. Once, for nearly three weeks, the entire family had to sleep in a friend’s stable separated from a horse by only a plank of wood. Young Roberto saw it as an adventure—and does so to this day. “There was this face of a horse that we would see in the night looking at us from up high,” he says. “It was beautiful—a bit like Jesus in the stall. It was fantastic sleeping there.”

Circumstances were usually better, but not by much. His father worked odd jobs—farmer, carpenter, bricklayer—while his mother, Isolina, also now 80, worked at home inspecting fabric. Raised near the textile city of Prato in Tuscany, Benigni shared a bed—in a house without water or electricity—with his mother and three sisters. (Bruna, 54, works in textiles; Albertina, 52, runs a flower shop; Anna, 50, is an elementary school aide.) “In a philosophical sense,” says Benigni, “poverty can be very beautiful.”

One of his childhood joys was cajoling the manager of the local movie theater to let him in for nothing. There he discovered Charlie Chaplin, his inspiration. He was “like poetry, whatever he did with his body,” Benigni says. Today the actor carries an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema, by which he defines his own life. As a youth, he recalls, “I was adventurous and chaste, like Harrison Ford in his films.”

Chastity won out when Benigni made a brief detour toward the priesthood after junior high school, attending a seminary in Florence. But when a flood damaged the school, he opted not to return. (“I was saved by the floodwaters,” he says.) After graduating from an accounting school in Prato—he had studied theater in his free time—he headed to Rome. There, at age 20, he made his name as a stand-up comic and storyteller, moving to films in 1977. (He spoke a smattering of English, for the first time, in 1986’s low-budget comedy Down by Law.) In 1991, he directed and starred in the mistaken-identity comedy Johnny Stecchino, one of the highest-grossing films in Italian history.

That same year he married Braschi, whom he had met in the early ’80s while she was studying theater in Rome. “Nicoletta is the image of feminine for me,” he says, “and I like all things feminine.” Braschi has played his romantic interest several times, and Benigni’s character always falls immediately in love with her—”like when Donald Duck sees Daisy,” he observes helpfully. Says Braschi: “He always writes great roles for me, usually someone independent and strong. And,” she adds, “I like this way we work.”

The couple—who, says Benigni, hope to “have very soon a lot of children”—share an apartment in Rome, where he spends free time reading everything he gets his hands on. “He knows by heart the whole Dante’s Inferno,” says Vincenzo Cerami, who cowrote the Life Is Beautiful screenplay. “He’s the most cultured person I know in the movie business.” Benigni’s niece Stefania Frangipani is equally impressed: “He knows all about medicine, about painting.” Yet despite his sophistication, she notes, “Roberto has never denied his humble origins, his country family.”

Indeed, Benigni and Braschi rarely travel during time off. “When we can be at home by ourselves, it becomes a beautiful voyage,” he says. “We like to do the simplest things in the world, like be with our friends.” But even as fame makes those moments even rarer, he has no complaints. “Especially outside of Italy, it’s changed my life,” he admits, “but in a good way. People come up and embrace me in New York, in America. I never expected such a quantity of love. This has been a great gift.”

Dan Jewel

Sarah Delaney in Rome, Liz Corcoran in London and Cathy Nolan in Paris

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