Not So Beautiful
Less than a decade ago, Roberto Benigni became world cinema's darling with Life Is Beautiful, his tragicomic look at the Holocaust. This movie landed Benigni both an Oscar and a place in the hearts of film buffs everywhere. It's a real shame that for The Tiger and the Snow, Benigni's latest jab at getting back into movies after his Pinocchio debacle in 2002, the man borrows so shamelessly from his modern-day masterpiece, bringing out the worst of its elements and delivering what's essentially Life Is Beautiful's mustachioed evil twin.
Benigni plays Attilio, a poetry professor in Rome with a manic personality and a carefree attitude toward life. Lately, he's fallen head over heels for Vittoria (Nicoletta Braschi), a mystery woman who keeps popping up in Attilio's dreams. Our hero enjoys a night of brief romance until Vittoria is suddenly called on business to Iraq just as American forces are beginning to invade the country. Within days, friend and fellow poet Fuad (Jean Reno) informs Attilio that his dream girl has been critically injured in an explosion and is dying in a Baghdad hospital. Not one to give up hope at any cost, Attilio finagles his way into Iraq, braving minefields, gunfire, and various other dangers in a quest to collect ingredients for the medicine Vittoria needs to survive.
When I say The Tiger and the Snow is a ripoff of Life Is Beautiful, I'm not exaggerating: in the latter film, a spirited Italian man uses humor to distract his son from the horrors of a concentration camp in World War II; in the former, a spirited Italian man uses humor to distract -- well, himself, I guess -- from the horrors of the war in Iraq.
The Tiger and the Snow spirals slowly down into utter failure not only in the way Benigni pillages his previous works for story material; it's also in how he tries to tweak the plot to make it seem less of a lazy retread. The heart of Life Is Beautiful was found in the selflessness of Benigni's lead character, a man who put his own life on the line to protect his son from the living hell of a Nazi work camp. The entire film concerned creating joy from sadness and maintaining a bright outlook in the darkest of situations, all told in a nimble, pitch-perfect story. The Tiger and the Snow, on the other hand, contains one false note after another. It maintains the basic outline of its predecessor while packing none of the emotional impact.
Once again, Benigni's lead character resorts to comedy to make his way through one of the stickiest situations possible, but his motives come across as much more selfish and oblivious in this project. The movie was meant to be another story of selfless love, of a guy putting himself in danger in order to help save a loved one, but while Benigni acknowledged the Holocaust and parlayed it into the crux of Beautiful's plot, here the "stuck in Iraq" aspect feels like a desperate gimmick. From how little he incorporates the dicey atmosphere into the story (and when he does, it's usually in an ill-conceived set piece such as when Attilio is shaken down at a military checkpoint), Benigni might as well have done a tried-and-true road trip comedy, for his once charming, crazy-go-nuts mannerisms are incredibly annoying here.
Regarding the supporting cast, Benigni's real-life wife Braschi makes it through the film scot-free, thanks to her delicate acting and lovely looks, and the always-welcome Tom Waits appears from time to time to pitch in a song. However, Reno is stuck with little to do except attempt to bring Attilio back to reality and take part in a subplot that comes to a sudden, awkward, and inexplicable end.
Both this film's title and that of Life Is Beautiful serve as metaphors for their central themes. In the latter case, it's the notion that life is beautiful even when its worst parts rear their ugly heads. While The Tiger and the Snow confusingly tries to explain its own moniker, I think it applies perfectly to what Benigni's storytelling approach has now come to: taking a beautiful, gentle tale and proceeding to tear it to shreds.
MY RATING: * 1/2 (out of ****)
(Released by Hart Sharp Video; not rated by MPAA.)