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Vincenzo Cerami; co-wrote ‘Life Is Beautiful’ for screen

‘‘You have to seek the beauty and the horror,” Vincenzo Cerami said.

Ettore Ferrari / EPA / File 2010

‘‘You have to seek the beauty and the horror,” Vincenzo Cerami said.

WASHINGTON — Vincenzo Cerami — an Italian writer who coauthored the screenplay of ‘‘Life Is Beautiful,’’ Roberto Benigni’s award-winning tragicomedy about a father’s quest to save his son’s life and innocence amid the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp — died July 17 in Rome. He was 72.

His death was widely reported by Italian news organizations. The cause could not immediately be confirmed.

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A protégé of Pier Paolo Pasolini, a revered Italian writer and director, Mr. Cerami was a poet, novelist, and playwright who wrote or co-wrote the screenplays of more than 40 films. His greatest success in the United States was ‘‘Life Is Beautiful.’’

Few viewers of the 1999 Oscars ceremony could forget Benigni, the film’s director and star, exuberantly clambering over seats to collect the Academy Award for best foreign language film. Benigni won the award for best actor; he and Mr. Cerami were nominated for best original screenplay.

Of Mr. Cerami’s numerous collaborations with Benigni, ‘‘Life Is Beautiful’’ was surely the most daring. It presented tender romance, slapstick antics, and the image, however brief, of a mountain of corpses, victims of Nazi slaughter.

Mr. Cerami and Benigni began discussing the film in the mid-1990s. Benigni, a Chaplinesque funnyman, wanted to express comedy in an ‘‘extreme situation.’’ He could not imagine a setting more extreme than a concentration camp.

Benigni’s father was imprisoned in a Nazi camp and, to protect his children, related his experience with humor.

‘‘I said to Roberto, ‘Strange — gaiety in a concentration camp?’ ” Mr. Cerami recalled. ‘‘His father told his tales with a smile, because he couldn’t bear the misery and the nightmares and the memories.’’

Critics were divided. ‘‘It dares to laugh in the face of the unthinkable,’’ Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times. ‘‘And because Mr. Benigni can be heart-rending without a trace of the maudlin, it works.’’

‘‘Sentimentality is a kind of fascism too, robbing us of judgment and moral acuity,’’ Richard Schickel wrote in Time magazine, ‘‘and it needs to be resisted. ‘Life Is Beautiful’ is a good place to start.’’

Mr. Cerami was insistent.

‘‘In cinema, in art, people can’t watch more than 10 minutes of evil because in the end it becomes horror,’’ he once said. ‘‘You have to seek the beauty and the horror.’’

Mr. Cerami was born in Rome on Nov. 2, 1940, making him about the same age as the fictional Giosue. As a boy, his schoolteachers included Pasolini, before Pasolini became renowned as an intellectual.

‘‘I owe everything to Pasolini,’’ Mr. Cerami said.

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