P.O.V. No.26 - Humor in Film and TV

Hybrid humour, for short
The magical neo-realism of Roberto Benigni's Tu Mi Turbi

Daniel Alegi
People who make us laugh
Maybe it's a science.
Maybe it's humanity...
(Tata ta ra tac)
Maybe it's just... Balzac.

These are lines from Paolo Conte's final soundtrack song of Tu Mi Turbi, Roberto Benigni's 1983 debut as a director. In the closing scene, a military guard (Claudio Bisagli) "proves" to his cynical, anti-authoritarian fellow soldier (Benigni) that God exists. How? By asking for snow to fall by the count of nine. The song's nonsensical meditation is an ode to slur words from the bottom of a glass, and to getting lost on the way home at night. It is also the unifying element in a fragmented, hybrid, ironic film. As the final credits roll over a low-budget snow-effect shot of the Eternal City smothered by the silent marvel, a spectator may wonder: was that comedy?

Tu Mi Turbi - translated as both You Disturb Me (USA) and You Upset Me (UK) - is actually a little-known composite of four separate short films, each with its own title. The first, called "Durante Cristo" (During Christ), and the second called "Angelo" (Angel), both extract humor from religion, one employing Jesus (a boy to baby-sit) and God (an antagonist in love) as characters in absurdist story designs. The third and fourth short segments are entitled "In Banca" (At the Bank) and "Milite Ignoto" (The Unknown Soldier), and focus on money and army-regulations as premises for nonsensical humor scenarios. All four shorts share one actor, one director, one final credit roll, and a consistent soundtrack. All were produced during the same period and none were screened individually. Early edit assemblies placed the second and third shorts in inverse order.

My p.o.v. - as a filmmaker raised in Italy - is that Tu Mi Turbi may be seen as a hybrid film, crossing lines and conventions in form and genre.

The film must be seen as a feature in chapters. Yet at the same time it is a summation of separate shorts. Secondly, Tu Mi Turbi's core is existential humor, a non-genre in conventional cinema, a creative compass that re-presents - from one short to another - imaginary links to the likes of Beckett, Ionesco, Chaplin and the Italian improv actor Toto.

Benigni's social and artistic inspirations and alter-ego identities - rather than fostering a feeling of fragmentation in viewing the films - project one persona and one authorial without-a-net exploration of the human condition. The Tu Mi Turbi characters are fragile, lost, illogical, off balance, lonely, desperate. And (therefore?) funny. They exude a hopeful naiveté that resonates as believable and real despite their magical neo-realism (my term), extraordinary circumstances, self-irony and collective make-believe.

All four shorts share a core focus on sadly hilarious nobodies entangled in scenes of work, religion, love and verbal non-sequiturs so lightly sketched as to feel familiar and un-staged, at least at the outset. They were developed with Giuseppe Bertolucci. At the time Benigni had mostly a background as a stage and TV performer. In one of his earliest black-and-white skits on RAI TV in the late 70s, he appeared interrupting regular evening programming with a home-made bootleg of political satire, literally squeezed on the air while milking cows on a farm. These "interruptions" were first-person TV sketches, monologues without dramatic structure, 10-12 minutes long. As a first-time director of Tu Mi Turbi, story design presented a challenge for the Tuscan actor: he had never been responsible for extended dramatic storytelling, let alone three-act coherence and development. The burden of a proper dramatic structure posed itself a formal dilemma.

Benigni's choice to composite short films rewards the audience with the added challenge of an open-ended story-puzzle - to re-assemble hybrid splinters of meaning that lack comforting, genre divides. As digital film experimentation and craft grow, animated characters share the screen with live action actors and the doc Surplus by Erik Gandini uses the visual language of music videos and advertising. Benigni's Tu Mi Turbi, made in the early 80s, may be considered a precursor, with its humor tout-court - of 21st century cinema's impulses to mix fact and fiction into hybrid-media forms.

"Durante Cristo" (During Christ) is set in the year 5 A.D. The hero is Benigno, a shepherd with a problem: he needs a miracle, as all his sheep have gone astray. As destiny has it, Benigno is friends with a couple from out of town, Joseph and Maria, They dream of a rare night out. Joseph begs Benigno to baby-sit for their five year old son, Jesus. The Italian public targeted by the author had never seen a comedian venture into this holy home, especially not an irreverent comic with a TV reputation for blasphemy. How can an impious shepherd-director armed only with con-games and make-believe stories entertain a sleepless little Messiah?

Surprise. Benigno plays in this short an indeed benign alter-ego, with a tact in handling the holy family that the actor Benigni had not been previously famous for. Benigno/i opens with a script miracle: no villain in this short film, just a room, a bathtub, a fireplace and a few pieces of fish and bread to "multiply." The set is simply a one-room theater for this magician and his special witness. In one hilarious sequence, Benigno tries to bathe the child, but the boy just stands on the bathtub water.

In Tu Mi Turbi believing is the starting point of illusion, of magic, of accepting the inexplicable, even beyond the (now well-metabolized) cinematic illusion of cinema itself. In "Durante Cristo" the audience sees Jesus believe a stranger who distracts him and slips more and more of the same bread and fish on the table. Seeing others believe is a passe-partout to Benigni's humor. It makes the audience a witness, not a passive spectator.

Short 2, "Angelo" (Angel) is set in a world where people are shadowed by visible winged mentors. A man wanders the streets of Rome in a Tuxedo, looking for his lost guardian angel, a gorgeous female. He finds her in a brothel, where she confesses her infidelity. What makes it a real nightmare is that she is now having an affair with the Almighty himself.

In one of Woody Allen's literary short stories, a man married to a beautiful but simple-minded blonde woman regularly pays by the hour for a heavy-set woman in a brothel to discuss Dostoevsky with him. In "Angelo" Benigni's character is so boring that the human condition of loneliness offers no terrestrial escape. The man cannot believe his destiny, nor that such profound betrayal could come from so high up.

Benigni's character: "Him?" "You mean... Him? How do you... You don't mean... HIM?"

In "Angel," the ending reveals the man as he awakens from a nightmare. The Angel is by his side. What? When Napoleon and the Devil enter the bedroom and the costume party is declared over, sadness returns. Rejoice, humor made happiness lasted a few beats. The real angel waits for the next party to appear...

Benigni is no Buster Keaton, words drive his humour more than physical events. The tipping point in the Tu Mi Turbi shorts is a key turning point beat exploiting a moment of surprise and contradicting a previously established pattern.

In "Durante Cristo" the pattern is the disappearance of Benigno's sheep. In "In Banca" (At the Bank, Short 3), the protagonist is a man looking to buy an apartment. The pattern is that every agency showing of apartments is so crowded and moves so quickly that he never even gets a chance to bid. On the third try he finally manages a solution: he physically locks 20 other buyers inside the apartment. In the heat of the exploit, he signs for a price above his means. He now needs a loan he cannot afford and in the extended central scene, faces a bank director. Benigni has no collateral to guarantee the loan. Improv dialogue of this sort follows:

Benigni: Dear Director, if had money, would I be here asking for a loan?
The Director is on the phone talking business.
Benigni: If I had money, I would be lending you money, Mr. Director, not the other way around! Just tell me how much money you need, Mr. Director and I can lend it to you. Is that what you need, money? How much do you need? That's what I would do.
The Director is now off the phone.
Director: What were we talking about?

The filmmaker Benigni does not allow the bank director to break out of the Ionesco ping-pong pattern with logic, and fuels verbal misunderstandings with nonsense, random phonetic associations, reversals and plays on words that only the Italian language version renders to the fullest. Short cinema is not normally forgiving of abstract verbiage and repetition and has a low tolerance for predictability. Yet in Tu Mi Turbi's shorts , as Richard Raskin might put it, the presence of both consistency and surprise is an asset. Benigni will engage the audience to witness and believe the absurd, until the police intervenes to remove the man and slam him in jail. The unhappy ending is lined with humorous silver: the comfortable jail cell looks and feels a lot like the empty 40 square meter apartment the protagonist had tried to buy in the first place. And not only that! The man can have it all to himself. Our absurd world keeps spinning and making sense.

The fourth and final short is "Milite Ignoto" (The Unknown Soldier) which begins with a voice-over introducing the situation and the plight of two guards, a beginning typical of lesser neo-realist films as a way of placing a story within the realm of fiction despite obvious historical and political references. Two soldiers stand guard at the Italian national monument. By duty they are sworn to silence and immobility. Benigni's character changes position often and talks all the time, engaging his counterpart - against his will - in dialogue.

In all four shorts Benigni's character sits or stands still next to another character who listens to his monologues as a witness, a sparring partner, or as just a visual cutaway shot, providing ad lib opportunities. Benigni the director shoots and edits extended cutaway shots (in Italian called a "listening plane") of everything possible (faces, animals, open windows) so he can use more of his improv material from separate takes.

For Benigni, the live audience itself had played the role of witness to his standup comic "shows." In Tu Mi Turbi the audience is this wit-ness character who not only listens to Benigni's verbal weaving but becomes its accomplice, thus inhabiting contradictions and misunderstandings in a humorous and hopeless pursuit of solutions and answers.

In the final episode Benigni plays a villain. His escalating verbal nonsense and rule-breaking drive the second soldier to a near break-down. One line in particular, introduced after an exchange concerning which of the two is more deserving to have a girlfriend, is repeated like a mantra.

- Siamo di famiglia contadina, Tu mi turbi, signorina. (We come from a peasant family. You trouble me miss. )

- Tu mi turbi, Tu mi turbi signorina. (You trouble me. You trouble me miss. )

The "Unknown Soldier" pits two human victims in direct conflict. One believes in duty and army rules, and is devoted to respecting the country's highest military altar and the flame that burns within it. The other (the villain) lights his cigarette in the holy fire and is busy answering his bayonet-phone which his imaginary girlfriends call with increasing frequency. Neither has a way out. Like Toto, the Neapolitan cabaret star who became a fixture in hundreds of films in the post-war period, Benigni here creates a center stage and removes all the rest (sounds of distant traffic are mixed in) to isolate the human condition of two drafted soldiers guarding a flame in peacetime. Loneliness and sadness become a platform for their imagination. As characters, they must amuse themselves with humor, to survive.

Benigni Soldier: You know what I can do about these phone calls?
Other Soldier: What?
Benigni Soldier: I am not going to answer it anymore.
Other Soldier: Oh really?
Benigni Soldier: Yes. I am just going to let it ring. That will serve them right.

The "Unknown Soldier" invokes Beckett's hobos in waiting, but clads them in uniform, as if to show the institutionalization and regulation of a permanent state of waiting for mankind. How can a solution arrive? Fellini-ex-machina !

The two soldiers debate whether God exists.
Other Soldier: I know God exists.
Benigni Soldier: How do you know that?
Other Soldier: A friend of mine heard it from someone who knows for sure.
Benigni Soldier: What's his name. This guy who knows?
Other Soldier: I can't tell you.
Benigni Soldier: Just tell me the initial. Of his name.
Other Soldier: I can't.
Benigni Soldier: Come on, tell me!
Other Soldier: B.
Benigni Soldier: B?
Other Soldier: Yes, it starts with B.
Benigni Soldier: Tell me the second letter.

Benigni's alter egos are always asking. Asking for help, asking for directions, asking for a revelation, for pardon, for a second chance with a woman or a bank. The failure to find answers is not blamed on anyone. Benigni's shorts are forgiving in nature. We are all human, he seems to say, we are all familiar with God, Love, Money, and War, the narrative shorthand map of all cinema short or long is about trying to put together the pieces, to understand, to resolve a personal matter, to get out of a jam, to do (what?) to ask (why?) to wonder (how?).

Challenged to prove God's existence - in a refrain of the happy ending that all other individual shorts share - the common man's struggles are rewarded. Not as an American-hero is rewarded (through a strong-willed effort) but by nature, by coincidence, by the random unifying, humorous, nonsensical "IT" of existence.

A silent burst of silent random beauty quells the voices. Snow falls. Paolo Conte's piano wails will help us wander further.

People who make us laugh
Maybe it's a science.
Maybe it's humanity...
(Tata ta ra tac)
Maybe it's just... Balzac.

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