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Letter from Rome, February 9, 2020: Roberto Benigni and the Song of Songs

Something like what’s captivated the attention of a significant portion of the public here in Italy over the past few days, simply couldn’t happen back home in the United States.

Roberto Benigni at 2020 San Remo music festival. (Image: Screenshot, www.raiplay.it)

So, Roberto Benigni caused quite a stir on this week. You remember him from La vita è bella – “Life is Beautiful” in English – for which he won the Best Actor and Best Foreign Film awards at the 1999 Oscars.

He’s an extraordinarily talented fellow.

Benigni’s dedication to the project of preserving and advancing Italy’s magnificent and imperiled cultural heritage is proven in a thousand ways beyond the shadow of a doubt, and undeniable. His public persona is at once outsized and approachable. His Tutto Dante tour a few years back brought the great Florentine poet’s work to life for people across generations and social strata.

Thursday evening, during the third night of the San Remo music festival, he left the Divine Comedy at home, and tried his hand at the Song of Songs. Yes, that one.

It was a remarkable moment: a hero of Italian artistic endeavor in this generation and an international star of confirmed genius reading an erotic poem before a packed house at the nearly 2 thousand-seat Ariston theatre, with an estimated 60% of Italian viewers — as many as 20 million people — tuned in.

The problem wasn’t to be found in his delivery, which was perfect. It wasn’t even in the unofficial and erotically charged translation for which he opted. That arguably drove home the evident and undeniable eroticism of the original. The problem was his prefatory gloss.

“The Song [of Songs] is the book of desire,” Benigni said. “Need may be met, but desire, never,” he continued, noting the intimations of the infinite and the fleeting tastes of immortality that erotic ecstasy affords. “It tells the story — not even a story — but — it’s a boy and a girl [a her and a him] who love each other, and represent all the couples — in every part of the world, in every epoch — who repeat the miracle of love.”

So far, so good.

“All the couples!” Benigni went on to say. “The woman with her man, the woman with her woman, the man with his man — and not only,” Benigni continued, “[but] every person who loves.”

Earlier, Benigni had noted how many allegorizing readings of the Song of Songs tend to minimize the simple fact of the subject chosen by the poet. One result of this, is that the self-styled allegorical interpretations tend to fail: they want to read it in “one way” — privileging the “symbolic” pole of the allegory — without realizing the revealing power of the poem when read from the allegorical sense to its plain subject.

In other words: the inevitable eroticism of the poetry rooted in and rising from its subject — which Benigni rightly identifies as desire expressed, dreamt, and consummated — reveals the mystery of the way in which God loves his people, but also reveals the divine power at once contained and disclosed in the physical act of love.

Benigni was at pains to justify his choice of a translation that made the carnal and sexual subject matter of the poem blatant and inevitable. He wanted his audience to pay attention to the text. He wanted to break through the readings that elide the surface reading, and thus make real allegorical interpretation impossible, reducing any such reading to mere interpolation. In this, he was a good teacher.

He called his audience — quite rightly — to a reading capable of accounting for the poetic subject itself, and therefore of constructing any allegorical reading in a manner faithful to the textual sense.

The Italian bishops’ newspaper, Avvenire, quoted the director of Italy’s flagship state television channel, Rai1, Stefano Coletta, as saying: “The Song of Songs has been read by many illustrious personages as the condensation of love between a man and a woman. Benigni has transposed [It. traslato, which is the the past participle of the verb “to translate” in the sense of moving a fixed and permanently deposited article to a new resting place, such as human remains already entombed] this possibility of love so as also to talk about loves between man and man, woman and woman: in the work of a genius there is not discoverable any irreverence, but great respect.”

Methinks the director doth protest too much. That text, in fact, speaks of a man’s love for a woman — not just any man, but her own — and a woman’s love for her man. To sidestep this detail in favor of an easily expansive reading of the applicability of the text, is already an interpolation of precisely that mold, which Benigni reproached in some ecclesiastical interpreters.

“40 minutes of biblical text kept millions of people glued to their screens, smack in the middle of a music festival, late in the evening,” wrote Avvenire’s special envoy to Sanremo, Lucia Bellaspiga. “[It was] a practically perfect operation,” wrote Bellaspiga, “save for that temptation, into which fell even a free spirit like Benigni: to offer the pinch of incense [It. pagare il pegno] to the politically correct.”

Here’s the thing.

I realize that something like what’s captivated the attention of a significant portion of the public here over the past few days, simply couldn’t happen back home. It would be unthinkable for American television in this day. Something very like it wouldn’t have been outside the realm of possibility too terribly long ago. Even in our overt political discussions, the abasement has happened precipitously.

Watch the Nixon – Kennedy debate in 1960 (it’s on YouTube) or even the VP debate between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle.

Everyone remembers Bentsen’s savage snub: “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” When Quayle protested, “That was really uncalled for, Senator,” Bentsen offered, “You are the one that was making the comparison, Senator — and I’m one who knew him well. And frankly I think you are so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well-taken.” People decried that episode as indicative of a debased and degraded public discourse. It appears statesmanlike by comparison with the fare to which we are treated in our day.

This week, I think of the hyperventilating — from every quarter — over the Super Bowl halftime show. For one thing, isn’t the chief complaint against the halftime show that it’s in the middle of a football game, and why can’t they get on with it? For another, J-Lo and Shakira sharing a stage sounds like the hottest ticket in 1997.

Imagine the bishops’ paper sending a special envoy to the Super Bowl (and getting a hot take from Mark Silverman)? First, you’d have to imagine the bishops having a paper. In comparison with the way the culture wars are playing out here, it strikes me that the guys who suppose themselves to be leading back home — on both sides — aren’t really in the fight at all. They’re playing the video game version.


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About Christopher R. Altieri 119 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is Rome Bureau Chief for The Catholic Herald. He spent more than a dozen years on the news desk at Vatican Radio. He holds the PhD from the Pontifical Gregorian University, and is the author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.

7 Comments

  1. The Italian media hasn’t been taken over by leftists? I wonder if that is really the case. With the weak response of Avvenire, maybe they don’t need to be more hostile to the Church, since the opposition is so pitiful.

  2. Who needs Benigni? Saints Bernard, John of the Cross and Teresa of Jesus got the take on the Song of Songs, as well as a host of others from the Communion of Saints.
    Benigni just won’t do. The self-deceived clown does’t match up.

  3. 22 years ago I read from the Song of Songs at my niece’s wedding. I couldn’t get through it and they looked at me – are you ok? I had read through it about 50 times for practice and I NEVER made it through.

    Good memory.

  4. Although included in the Gk Septuagint Judaism rejected Solomon’s Song of Songs precisely on assumption of erotic love between Man and Woman. Catholicism, the early Christian community accepted it. Later Reformation Protestants discarded it similar to Judaic interpretation. The early Church guided by the Holy Spirit correctly identified those books inspired by that Spirit not Man. That primordial Christian community lived the Gospels what was taught by the Apostles assured in their conviction by the Spirit. Solomon by scriptural account gave himself over to lust a rationale for the book’s rejection. Free Spirit Roberto Benigni’s interpretation interestingly is virtually parallel to that of Pope Francis, Cardinal Kasper, certainly Fr James Martin SJ. Avvenire the mouthpiece of the Italian Bishops Conf substantiates that new paradigm ethical linkage in their obeisance perhaps better said moral affinity to the Pontiff’s views on sexual morality. Evidently the moral thrust of this Pontificate on changing traditional sexual ethics presently implemented with tacit Papal approval by the German Bishops. I don’t question Altieri’s position otherwise he would not have suggested it questionable in an article. I of course repudiate the affront that borders on blasphemy to the faithful Christian and to Christ himself. To construe that literature inspired by the Holy Spirit to convey the passion of love between God and the soul of Man [see The Spiritual Canticle Saint John of the Cross] is homosexual requires condemnation. If those at the Vatican or Avvenire, RIA “To talk about loves between man and man, woman and woman in the work of a genius there is not discoverable any irreverence but great respect”, or any of the Italian bishops do not the faithful must state so simply by ordinance of their baptism.

  5. The sinful projection of sodomy into the Song of Songs is a reflection of its acceptance, and the singer’s need for it, into society. It isn’t God’s truth and reality. Now, Solomon knew everything about the Shekinah Glory because they saw it and experienced the love of God with their own eyes,hearts,and minds when they carried the Ark of the Covenant; God lived in that Dark Cloud. When Solomon writes, indeed, it is an exact experience of what the Saints also speak about: The Odor of Sanctification: This singer doesn’t have a clue about its true meaning.

  6. May be providential that this comes around the Feast related to The Immaculate Conception .
    ‘ Who ever does the will of MY Father , is mother and brother and sister to Me ‘ – Lord omits both the Father and the Bride in that mention – latter being The Church as a whole .
    TOB teachings given us as a means to also honor these intricate aspects in our relationships , The Spirit likely having foreseen the confusions prepared by the enemy for our times .
    Song of Songs , for those who are not that mystical can be possibly also seen as the prophetic utterances of Solomon , with regard to the courtship of the parents of Bl.Mother – Sts Ann and Joachim ..
    Bl .Emmerich mentions how they had an older daughter , also named Mary and thereafter led a life of fasting and prayer for 20 years , ( the Song of Songs thus could serve to see the extent of their love and sacrifice in this regard )
    and mystical, noncarnal conception of Bl.Mother ,in the Prefall plan of God , more by the power of the spoken word in The Spirit .
    Bl.Mother as Icon of The Church , filled and overshadowed by The Spirit of the Triune God , doing the will of The Father , through the merits of The Lord , of delivering and protecting those in her care , from the wounds inflicted by the carnal spirits that are meant to darken minds , making it difficult to do the Father’s will , esp. in the areas of faith and forgiveness .
    May the prayers of many help to bring the purity and its healings in The Spirit , into all aspects of all our lives , that we too join The Song .

  7. Using the Bible to push the Homosexual Agenda? Nothing new, just take things out of context, ignore the totality of the message of the rest of the Bible or just plain twist it to mean what you want (with the help of lying/corrupted scholars), is one of the darkest expressions of the lustful-greed-for-power at the core of all homosexuality, whether it is intellectual, physical or both: corrupting the very Word of God. Evil is always looking for false legitimacy and false authority with delirious lust and the Bible is a favorite target.

    At the same time, using the Song of Songs to disguise Homosexuality as a “passionate”, “poetic”, “highest love” kind of thing as presented in that Sacred Book is totally ludicrous. Homosexuality is a highly addictive lustful farce, so empty is has to be frequently “renovated” through addictive promiscuity and/or ever more extreme forms of sexual perversion/derangement. The Song of Songs is there in the Bible to show the absolute legitimacy and absolute superiority of the God-given Passionate Love between ONE real man and ONE real woman, which as limited as they may be as humans, can open the door for God’s Infinite and Legitimate Love on Earth.

    Not so with homosexuality that kills self-transcendence right off the bat with a same gender/approximate-copy-of-yourself. Benigni is helping “enculturate” a farce while, at the same time, trivializing, minimizing and ridiculing the Song of Songs with another grotesque homosexual costume as done all over the culture with many other things.

    Benigni is not alone. Many others, including admired and reputable Catholics with impressive longstanding resumes, “degrees and pedigrees”, etc. have allowed themselves to be seduced by the Homosexual Anti-Culture of Lust and Power and are now engaging in the very subtle, self-serving and intoxicating “Bergoglio Tango”, where like in a real tango, a sharp move is made in one direction (lip service to True faith and Doctrine), then suddenly a sharp move in the opposite direction (subtle or no so subtle attacks to True Faith and Doctrine and those who practice it), and then repeat. Next time your Faith is challenged or seduced, it may be by someone with an impressive cultural and/or Catholic Background, one of your “holy” Catholic sisters/brothers. Just ask Jesus! Watch who you open your heart to, dance with and whispers sweet nothings on your ear!

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