A poor man who enriches us
In these times when politics, pomposity, pride, prejudice and paranoia permeate the masses, especially in the media - specifically Hollywood, who set themselves up as gods and monsters - it has to refresh the hearts and souls of all to see someone of Roberto Benigni's exuberance, innocence and genius upstage the haughty and win them over. We're talking, of course, of his winning two Academy Awards Sunday night for Best Actor and Best Foreign Film. We have been a fan of his classic Vita e' Bella, better known as "Life is Beautiful" since we saw it and commented most favorably on it in these pages on February 16th editorial. We were overjoyed at his achievements. While his film is a classic for the ages, this commentary today is not about the movie, but rather the man behind the movie and what he said that should strike a chord in all. In his acceptance speech he raced on about a plethora of things thanking everyone, but how many caught his words, "I would like to thank my parents in Vergaio in the little village of Italy; they gave me the biggest gift, poverty and I want to thank them for the rest of my life. Really, but thank you mama and papo. Thank you!" We've all heard countless people thanking their parents, most of the time for molding their lives so they could be successful and rich. After all, it's easy to thank our parents and God for the good things; but it was refreshing to hear him thank his parents for something that most disdain: poverty.
Too often we forget to thank God for these gifts for poverty is truly a gift. If it weren't, do you think Jesus, His Blessed Mother Mary and foster-father Saint Joseph would have lived in such a way? Would the King of Kings have been born in a stable if poverty was something to disdain? After all, He was God. He could have chosen the grandest palace of them all to live in, much like many televangelists today opt to do. Is that the way Christ wants us to live? Contrary to their pompous self-righteous platitudes that God wants them to live that way, those who spout "Lord, Lord" while luxuriating in lavish surroundings are dead wrong. See Matthew 7: 13-23. If living high on the hog was God's Will then He would have set the example. But He set the example in the other direction, followed faithfully by His Apostles and disciples and saints. If poverty weren't such a gift would this be a sacred vow? Would the early hermits, Saint Benedict's followers, Saint Francis of Assisi and his loyal band of friars have embraced poverty so willingly? The answer is 'No!' Our Lord elevated poverty at every instance throughout His life - both private and public. He made this more than evident in the Beatitudes. He established Poverty as an Evangelical Counsel, along with Chastity and Obedience as He said in Matthew 19: 21, "If you will be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give to the poor." Jesus understood how difficultu these three counsels would be, "Not all can accept this teaching; but those to whom it has been given" (Matthew 19: 11). Christ's reasoning was of course that by means of these evangelical counsels of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience man can avoid the chief evil tendencies that plague us - avarice, greed, sensuality, lust, and pride.
The Evangelical Counsel of Poverty means it is voluntary. It is highly unlikely Roberto Benigni's poverty was voluntary, but what was voluntary was his acceptance of it. It shows in his real life character and behavior. He grew from the experiences of going without so that today he can truly appreciate things that so many of us take for granted. So also Francis, Saint Anthony and the millions of other priests, nuns and brothers were appreciative of whatever they received, always giving thanks, praise and honor to God. They seldom grumbled or complained for they appreciated the little things of life. We, on the other hand, have grown spoiled over the years from too much. We've lost the will to go without; we've lost the commitment to penance and sacrifice. Consider the hardships Benigni had growing up. He tells of hiding because he thought he was ugly; he tells of being grateful for a piece of bread; of appreciating a sunset. How many of us express that kind of sentiment, that kind of gratitude. With all these problems growing up, Roberto could take solace in the greatest riches he had - love of his parents who provided what they could. It is evident that what they imparted in love and life's education turned out to be riches no amount of money could attain. Maybe that's why this region is so famous for they say invention is the mother of necessity and this was never truer than the Tuscany region of Italy where Roberto was born and grew up. He was born in Misericordia near Arezzo and then his family moved to Vergaio in Prato which is a village of about 3,000. Tuscany is the same area that gave us Saint Catherine of Siena and the Renaissance with masters like Michelangelo Buonarotti and Leonardo da Vinci not to mention a plethora of other saints as well as artists, writers and poets such as Giotto di Bondone and Dante Alighieri. Roberto was so poor he couldn't afford to buy a ticket to see the movies at the outdoor drive-in as a youngster. But that didn't deter him; he'd sneak around to the back and watch movies backwards drinking it all in. It was here that he first saw the genius of Charlie Chaplin and built on that. As he said so himself after winning the Oscar, "It's like Michelangeo for me, so Chaplin was...If you look at Charlie Chaplin, not only because he was able to mix - to laugh and to cry - which is so close to God...We don't have to take us so seriously. And Chaplain is the man who did this really marvelous, magnificent...like Michelangelo." As we mentioned before, he is a modern Renaissance man for the cinema for he has brought to life the simple things and elevated love and appreciation to the status of gifts to be cherished and treasured. And this is all because he was cherished and treasured as a child. "I would like to tell that I was really loved, with the simplicity." That is why it was a natural for him to make "Life is Beautiful" enabling him to so beautifully and eloquently, yet simply, depict love as all-good to a small child in the face of the most atrocious aberration of the holocaust evil.
During his acceptance speech the other night for winning Best Actor, he expressed gratitude and love in his best broken English that many may have taken the wrong way when he said "Oh how can I, I am not able to express all my gratitude, because now, my body is in tumult because it is a colossal moment of joy so everything is really in a way that I cannot express. I would like to be Jupiter and kidnap everybody and lie down in the firmaments making love to everybody because I don't know how to express - it's a question of love. You are really, this is a mountain of snow, so delicate, the suavity and the kindness, it is something I cannot forget." You have to realize the richness in which this man of poverty expressed his sentiments and understand it was pure innocence speaking from the heart - something very, very rare in Hollywood or in political circles. He is like a little child on Christmas morning, displaying unbridled emotions of joy and love. The innocence pours from every pore of his body and we are reminded of Christ's words in Matthew 19: 14, "Let the little children be, and do not hinder them from coming to Me, for of such is the kingdom of Heaven." Not that Benigni is a saint; far from it. In fact he is, we understand, a fallen-away Catholic and we all need to pray for his return to the Church for the sake of his own soul. But we also suspect that God has a great sense of humor and revels in the souls that are moved closer to Him through the such things as the works of this Tuscan genius who expresses so much innocent, child-like love that unites the world in the universal language of love. Besides the graces of the Sacraments, good works count in the final tally and we're prayerful that Roberto's will register highly on that scale. He is showing one thing for sure, that we take ourselves too seriously, have too much pride, and we need to lighten up and enjoy the gifts God has given all - the gift of life. If we have that, we can never be poor. Maybe that's why, in God's special way and loving compassion, we can take solace in Jesus' words in Matthew 26: 11, "For the poor you have always with you, but you do not always have Me." He was reminding us all that we would be comforted by God's Mercy and, in His Mercy in this present age of spiritual darkness and moral malaise, He has sent us the comedic, compassionate and genius talents of Roberto Benigni. For that we thank God and the Academy for making known to all a poor man who enriches us.