A CANNY BREED, THOSE JOLLY ITALIANS “The Economist”

WHAT links the Oscar-winning actor and director, Roberto Benigni; the president-designate of the
European Union, Romano Prodi; the Nobel prize-winner for literature, Dario Fo; and Renato Ruggiero, boss of the World Trade Organisation? It is not just that they are Italian, but that they are a new kind of Italian-tough, ambitious people who conceal those qualities with simpatia and
bonhomie. It works. They are successful, and everybody seems to like them.
Don’t be fooled by Roberto Benigni, the bespectacled jester boy from Tuscany who on March 21st clambered clownishly across rows of seats in a Los Angeles theatre to get his Oscars for "La Vita è Bella" ("Life is Beautiful"), a moving film about a Jewish-Italian father trying to hide the horror of the Holocaust from his child. It was deemed the best foreign film, with Mr Benigni best actor of the lot.
He will never say so, but Mr Benigni probably planned that chair-climb long ago. The same goes
for his comment when his second Oscar was announced ("This is a terrible mistake! I used up all my English! How can I express all my gratitude now?"). In fact, he promoted his film ruthlessly among Americans, who love his work-and his stamina. He is the first man since Laurence Olivier
to win an Oscar for acting in a film directed by himself.
Some of the same qualities helped Romano Prodi,  not long ago Italy’s prime minister, to clinch his
own prize-the European Commission’s  presidency-after the disgrace of Jacques Santer.
Mr Prodi was described, in his time in Italian  office, as a dreamy, avuncular academic from
Bologna, with little grasp of reality.  Nothing could be further from the truth. He knows  what he wants and how to get it, but he also  realised that a beam of bonhomie is what the  Italian political market wanted. It helped him rub  shoulders with his fellow prime ministers during  his three years in office. It could go down fine in  Brussels too.  Renato Ruggiero is a chubby, witty Neapolitan
who may look soft but has steel within. This helped  him to get his world-trade job and then to cajole  governments into agreeing (well, quite often) with  each other: his nickname in diplomatic circles is  "Rocky".
Actor-writer Dario Fo, winner of the Nobel prize  for literature in 1997, is yet another canny Italian
who hides his calculations well. He has been  depicted as an idealistic, careless anarchist from
Lombardy, all heart and no guile. Then, when he  got his prize, it became clear that he had already
carefully built up a solid reputation abroad, both  with his translated works and by going there a lot.
He made sure that in Sweden, home of the Nobel,  he was particularly well known.
Is it the end of the myth of Italians as hopeless simpatici? Quite possibly. Stereotypes can be fun, when used with caution. Italy deserves, at last, a  new one.
Beppe Severgnini

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