As director, writer and star of the tremendously funny JOHNNY STECCHINO, Roberto Benigni has placed himself in an enviable position--someone able to work in front of, behind and alongside the camera, all with equal panache.
The film begins as an impossibly beautiful woman pours out her heart to Dante (Benigni). The sappy faced Roman looks on stoically as she pleads for forgiveness and begs him to make love. As it turns out, the girl is merely telling him the story of an earlier encounter with her old boyfriend.
Always the last guy to get the girl, Dante precariously suggests he take her home. Brushing him off like lint, she refuses. Leaving a party that night, Dante is nearly run over by a beautiful woman, Maria (Nicoletta Braschi), who is zipping her sports car through town. Maria apologizes to the
hapless Dante, but when she gets a close look at his face, she can't believe it. She utters, "You're like a dream," before passing out in his arms. Flattered but confused, he runs off to find help for Maria. When he returns, she and her car are gone.
The next day, Dante is floating on air as he tells his pal Lillo (Alessandro DeSantis), a high school student with Downs Syndrome, about his magnificent episode from the previous evening. Dante, who drives Lillo's school bus, then proceeds to do his favorite magician's act by stealing two bananas
from a local fruit vendor. He returns home from work that night to find the ravishing Maria waiting at his door. She only stays for a brief moment--long enough to eat some cake. If Dante was confused before, now he's dumbstruck. Things get stranger when an insurance man shows up and Dante begins
flailing his right hand around--he's been claiming a false injury suit for years. Dante finally locates Maria's hotel and surprises her with a visit.
The couple spend a wonderful day together touring Rome, with Maria buying Dante a new suit and encouraging him to use a toothpick. Strangest of all, she begins to call him Johnny and draws a mole below his right eye. Dante doesn't mind--he's finally got his girl. The next day Maria promptly
disappears again. Heartbroken, Dante mopes around the apartment with Lillo. Then Maria calls, inviting Johnny to her mansion in Palermo. He arrives the next day happy as a puppy and is greeted by a man claiming to be Maria's uncle, D'Agata (Paolo Bonacelli)--in reality a low-life gangster with a
serious cocaine habit who works for the mysterious woman. He greets Dante with amazement and also calls him Johnny.
Dante is soon welcomed by a radiant Maria who shows him to his bedroom. The delighted houseguest believes it will only be a matter of time before they will consummate their relationship. Secretly watching the visitor from behind a closet door, however, is the real Johnny "Toothpick" Stecchino
(Benigni again), Maria's husband and a notorious Mafioso who has recently earned the ire of his fellow mob leaders. The plan is that Maria will march the unwitting Dante, a dead ringer for Stecchino, around town until the bad guys knock him off, leaving Maria and the Toothpick to live happily ever
after. The cold gangster who can't stand to be kissed by his wife isn't very impressed with Dante. "He don't look nothing like me. He's got the face of a wimp!"
The next day Dante rises early to seek out his daily breakfast of bananas. Just as he is about to pilfer one, a carload of hoodlums working for the infamous mobster, Filippo Cozzamara (Ignazio Pappalardo), spot him and open fire. He runs straight to the police and screams that the fruit shop owner
has tried to murder him. Later that night, while attending the opera with Maria, he causes a mass exodus just by his presence. He believes it's just because he didn't pay for a banana at intermission. Maria, desperate to get him rubbed out, takes him to a very public party where he ends up
offering a bag full of cocaine, which Uncle D'Agata told him was a cure for diabetes, to the town's Cardinal (Guilio Donnini).
The next day Maria has a clandestine meeting with the fearsome Cozzamara and tells him she'll deliver her husband. Shortly thereafter, Dante is paraded into a barbershop where he is surrounded by numerous ugly hoods. Meanwhile Maria and the real Johnny are on their way to South America. While they
stop at a gas station, Johnny is surprised to find the bathroom stalls filled with hitmen. Maria has out-schemed her husband. Dante is still safe and entertaining the barbershop hoods. Maria, a wealthier widow, takes Dante back to Rome and his old life. Lillo is waiting for him at the door.
Benigni has written a screenplay that perfectly suits his acting and directing sensibilities. At moments poignant and other times just this side of a Marx Brothers film, JOHNNY STECCHINO is designed to showcase the hyphenate's strengths--physical comedy and sheer versatility. The rubber-faced
comedian commands the screen from the first frame, playing Dante the lovable schlemiel. Benigni has one of those faces that elicits chuckles before a word is uttered, and his Dante evokes belly laughs as he is pursued by half of Sicily, in a role that might have been written for Peter Sellers or
If Dante is the Everyman with a dream, then Johnny the gangster is the tough--or, at least, semi-tough--side of Benigni. As Johnny, Benigni slows his body movements and plays his devotion to mamma with a twisted edge. Though Johnny is more neurotic than Dante, Benigni plays both roles with abandon
and makes the transitions work with a wide range of comic tricks. Some scenes seem written just to showcase his physical skills, but all the plot lines are nevertheless neatly resolved in the third act. Benigni has also surrounded himself with a uniformly strong cast, headed by Braschi as the
scheming and eccentric Maria.
JOHNNY STECCHINO is that rare and welcome phenomenon, a film that provokes sustained waves of laughter throughout. It's also a surprisingly poignant take on unrequited love, set against a variety of extremely inviting Italian backdrops. (Adult situations, substance abuse.)
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