As we ponder ways to familiarize the public with the Bible, Roberto Benigni has millions of Italians gripped by his television show about the Ten Commandments. The show, which was broadcast in two episodes last week on the government channel RAI 1 during prime time, got a viewer rating that surprised even the channel heads – 38 percent, which is more than 10 million viewers.
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“This shows that television can also be smart and intelligent,” said delighted officials of the Italian broadcast authority, “the public doesn’t just want trash.” Catholic groups hailed the program’s success a “television miracle.”
In both parts of the show – which was, unusually enough, not interrupted by advertising – the 62-year-old Benigni combined his personal interpretation of each commandment with a satirical critique of current events in Italy. “We came to talk about La Bibbia [“the Bible” in Italian], and instead we have to talk about Rebibbia [a prison in Rome],” he said on the first evening, referring to the recent corruption scandal that has shaken Rome.
In his comic, enthusiastic and rousing manner, the Academy Award-winning actor surveyed each of the Ten Commandments in turn, elaborating on their social, cultural and personal significance. He quoted from the Talmud and Walt Whitman, and concluded with a paean to integrity, love and life.
During the show – which lasted close to six hours in total – Benigni spoke about Sabbath observance as an amazing social-welfare law that was enacted “more than 3,000 years before Marx”; suggested that the commandment to honor one’s father and mother be extended also to grandparents, “who are so vital to raising grandchildren”; that the prohibition on adultery that the Catholic Church turned into a commandment “not to commit impure acts” caused terrible emotional suffering to “an entire generation of teenage boys, myself included,” who all lowered their heads in embarrassment before the priest because they were convinced he was referring to “one thing only” (a hint at masturbation). When he reached the commandment “Thou shalt not steal,” Benigni said with a broad smile that it had definitely “been written especially for us, the Italians.”
This is not the first time Benigni, who is known mainly as a brilliant comedian, has used his talents to address serious matters. In 2007 he went on a successful tour, “Tutto Dante” (“Everything Dante”), which centered around Dante Alighieri’s epic poem “The Divine Comedy.” The show later aired on the state television channel and had more than 10 million viewers.
In 2012, he appeared on a special television program about the Italian constitution, entitled “La più Bella del Mondo” (“The Most Beautiful in the World”), which garnered a record 12 million viewers.
“Benigni is proof that the public is better than customarily thought, and that viewers are smarter than some senior television officials think,” said Rome’s former mayor, Walter Veltroni.
Benigni, who is working on a new film, became famous internationally mainly thanks to his 1997 film “Life Is Beautiful,” which won three Academy Awards. Benigni holds honorary doctorates from many universities, including Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva.