A different, more "traditional" (in the sense that Naked Killer's gleeful man-maimers are a tad atypical) kind of serial killer prowls the streets of Roberto Benigni's drop-dead comedy The Monster. This film's mass slayer preys on women; the movie opens with a shot of elevator doors slowly opening and closing on the lifeless legs of victim number eighteen. Embarrassed cops, desperate for an arrest, call in criminal psychiatrist Taccone (vintage dry Michel Blanc). Working together, this team of investigators fingers petty con man Loris (Benigni) as their perp. The audience realizes what the clueless authorities don't: Loris may be a mischievous, sexually obsessed, chronic bumbler whose part-time job transporting department-store mannequins around Rome pays so poorly that he has to shoplift groceries and dodge the landlord who wants to evict him from his sparsely furnished flat, but he's no murderer.
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Comedians have used mistaken identity as a basis for humor as far back as anyone can remember; Benigni's own Johnny Stecchino (the Italian writer-director-star's 1992 international breakthrough) drew its biggest belly laughs from the contrast between Benigni's character's obviously sweet nature ("Benigni" begins with "benign") and the ruthless, predatory motives others ascribed to him. Loris goes to such elaborate lengths just to filch food and to keep his apartment that he immediately elicits audience sympathy. But tunnel vision afflicts The Monster's obtuse lawmen, so they bait a trap: They convince sexy detective Jessica Rosetti (Benigni's real-life wife Nicoletta Braschi) to move into the flat with Loris and use her seductive charms to uncork Loris's basic instincts.
In one sense it's the old average-guy-caught-up-in-larger-than-life-circumstances setup, which has informed every comic character from Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp to Woody Allen's lovable schlemiel. But how many cinematic funnymen have had the audacity to attempt a comedy about serial killing? As best as I can recall, only Roberto Benigni, who has a history of risk taking.
In Italy, a country where political tensions run high and sensitive topics such as religion, the Mafia, and official corruption regularly stir heated controversy, Benigni has become something of a national hero by consistently broaching the touchy subjects. It seems the rubber-limbed, putty-faced jester knows no fear; he once delivered an absurdly exaggerated macho diatribe against feminism to an audience composed entirely of women. Not sharing Benigni's affection for satire, the unappreciative crowd stormed the stage and stomped the diminutive orator to the ground. That life-threatening experience taught him nothing; Benigni debuted as a writer-director in 1983 with a film wherein he baby-sat Jesus while Mary and Joseph went dancing. Johnny Stecchino made fools of Mafiosi. The Monster lambastes inept police work, brands all authority figures as thick-headed, humanizes a sociopathic killer, and cautions against the evils of succumbing to a lynch-mob mentality. Yet the sweetness of character of Benigni's on-screen alter egos works like a Teflon coat that shields him from reproach even as his socially conscious comedies take on one hotly debated issue after another. You can't hold a grudge against someone who makes you laugh.
The Monster has shattered all the Italian box-office records that the spotty but intermittently riotous Johnny Stecchino set. Benigni cannot walk down a street in Rome without being mobbed. Yet here in the U.S. he remains largely unknown outside of the art-house crowd who might have caught his act in either Stecchino A which registered only modest commercial success in this country A or in the two Jim Jarmusch films that costarred Benigni: 1985's Down by Law, in which he played an Italian tourist sharing a New Orleans jail cell with Tom Waits and John Lurie, and 1991's Night on Earth, the hilarious high point of which was the comedian's memorable turn as a loquacious cabbie who picks up an ailing priest and feels compelled to confess to his holy passenger his bizarre sexual escapades with pumpkins, a sheep, and his brother's wife. Luckily for Benigni, so few people saw 1993's lame Son of the Pink Panther, and fewer still remember it, that the film did little to tarnish his reputation. Benigni could probably stroll unrecognized down Ocean Drive -- save, possibly, for the adulation of any visiting Italian tourists. But The Monster should change that. The film showcases the wiry, thinning-haired clown's gift for sophisticated slapstick and precision-timed physical comedy, unrivaled among contemporary comedians. The Monster finally provides American audiences with some evidence of why Benigni fans such as the late Federico Fellini compare his work to that of the all-time great movie mirthmakers like Harry Langdon, Stan Laurel, and Buster Keaton. It deserves to be a monster hit.