North American viewers who see a young Roberto Benigni on the cover of "Berlinguer I Love You" looking hopefully heavenward and holding a yellow sunflower might be tempted to pick up this unrated Italian comedy—especially if they recall the unbounded, childlike enthusiasm the actor displayed when he leapt from his seat after winning an Oscar for his performance in "Life is Beautiful."
But be warned. "Berlinguer I Love You" (originally Berlinguer ti vogio bene) could have been titled "Life is Crappy" instead. For most of the film's 91-minute running time, odd mama's boy Mario Cioni (Benigni), his mother (Alida Valli), and his friend, Bozzone (Carlo Monni), deliver a series of virtually non-stop rants against bad mothers, bad sons, women, "fags," Communism, people who are stupid (meaning, everyone but them) and life in general. "Eat, shit, eat, f**k. That's life. Not for me," Mario shouts. It's always shouting with these angry, unsatisfied people, whose mouths are as foul as the screen has seen.
Mario and his three friends are losers, in case you haven't guessed as much. They rail against men who "jerk off" all the time and can't satisfy a woman, but none of them has ever had anything remotely like a relationship or sexual contact. "Jerking off" is their not-so-secret pastime, and the quest for female pudenda and sexual fulfillment serves as a confusing metaphor for a film that also has something to say about Italian politics.
Enrico Berlinguer is perhaps best known outside of Italy for his refusal to negotiate after the Red Brigades kidnapped Aldo Morro, leader of the Christian Democratic Party. Berlinguer was National Secretary of the rival Italian Communist Party, serving in that position from 1972-84. When he died, his funeral was widely attended because the man was widely respected. He puts in an appearance in "Berlinguer I Love You" as an iconic roadside scarecrow, fashioned with a road sign as the base and a pair of straw-stuffed pants and shirt added to an old campaign sign of Berlinguer's face. At this "sacred" site, Berlinguer apparently masturbates time and again. "I'm jerking off 700 times before I die," he says, standing in front of that iconic scarecrow as if it were a Christian cross. Again, it's an obvious metaphor, but it will take someone with greater insight into Italian politics and culture than I have to understand it.
Then again, mixed signals are sent throughout this rancorous black comedy by Giuseppe Bertolucci, and it could be because it's Bertolucci's first film. It's Benigni's first feature film too, and as he gets carried away in rants that keep going, and going, and going, you have to wonder if he was as difficult to rein in as Robin Williams was early in his career.
Throughout most of the film, Mario wears clownish clothes—even for the Seventies—which are meant to deliberately suggest the harlequin, or wise fool. But his rants ring of irony rather than wisdom because he's so obviously impotent both in society and as a man. During a thunderstorm he crawls in bed with his mother, and cowers under her skirt ("nice c**t"), though she berates him with a constant stream of invectives. "You're ugly and stupid, you disgust the whole world. . . . You turn my stomach," she says, telling him she should have aborted him. Whether Mario is ranting with friends en route to or at work, en route to or at the movies or pathetic dances, they're all obvious big-talkers who never take action. He and his friends are quintessential victims and losers. Even a chubby little girl asking to be carried through a watery viaduct berates and abuses Mario.
It's never clear whether Mario is the village idiot or strangely semi-popular, for at a community bingo event which is followed by a socio-political debate, the emcee calls Mario forward to help out. We expect ridicule—especially after watching him all but spat upon by women at a dance—but that never happens. Instead, two women who gave him a ride take the stage to speak on behalf of women and the rights of women, while men in the audience take turns standing up and denouncing women and women's rights. Instead of any sustained narrative, what we get in "Berlinguer I Love You" is an episodic slice-of-life that begins at point "C" and ends at point "F," with two narrative counterpoints involving the mother. In one, Mario's friends tell them she's died, thinking it might give him freedom from her for a night; in another, she invites a neighbor to bring his peg-legged daughter to arrange a marriage with her idiot son. There's no shortage of strangeness in this film about an unhealthy relationship between a boy and his mother. But if you compare it to the likes of "The World According to Garp," you realize how much more resonance a film can have when we at least think we understand the reasons for the characters bizarre behavior.
Video: With no opening credits, faded colors, and plenty of grain, "Berlinguer I Love You" shows its age. The picture quality isn't awful, mind you, but you notice throughout the film, unable to ignore it. The film is letterboxed on a 1.33:1 screen so that it crops out around 1.66:1.
Audio: The Italian soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, with English subtitles. Watching with subtitles can be annoying too, because overlapping dialogue puts one line under another so quickly that it's hard to determine who speaks at times.
Extras: There are no extras other than the original Italian theatrical trailer.
Bottom Line: There are some funny moments in "Berlinguer I Love You" and the attempts to combine sexual and political satire are laudable. But the rants go on way too long, the metaphors frustrate because the meanings are never totally clear, and the performances are shrill and broadly played. In a year when Mel Brooks decided to remake "The Producers," his first film, you have to wonder if Bertolucci and Benigni, who collaborated on the screenplay, aren't looking at this one on DVD release and thinking maybe they should do the same. It certainly has the potential to be a much better film.