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Nobel laureate Dario Fo, who mocked politics, religion, dies

Associated Press Associated Press 13/10/2016 By FRANCES D'EMILIO and NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press
FILE - This Oct. 24, 2007 file photo shows Italian film writer and actor Dario Fo prior to the presentation of the movie "Zero - Itchiest sull'11 settembre" (Zero - Investigation on 9/11) at the Rome film festival. According to ANSA news agency Fo died on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016 in Milan at the age of 90. (AP Photo/Sandro Pace, file) © The Associated Press FILE - This Oct. 24, 2007 file photo shows Italian film writer and actor Dario Fo prior to the presentation of the movie "Zero - Itchiest sull'11 settembre" (Zero - Investigation on 9/11) at the Rome film festival. According to ANSA news agency Fo died on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016 in Milan at the age of 90. (AP Photo/Sandro Pace, file)

ROME — Italian playwright Dario Fo, whose energetic mocking of Italian political life, social mores and religion won him praise, scorn and the Nobel Prize for Literature, died Thursday. He was 90.

Fo died Thursday morning in Milan's Luigi Sacco hospital after suffering respiratory complications from a progressive pulmonary disease, said the chief of pulmonology, Dr. Delfino Luigi Legnani. Fo had been working on a new stage production with collaborators in his hospital room up until his final days, Legnani said.

The author of "Accidental Death of an Anarchist" and more than 70 other plays saw himself as playing the role of the jester, combining raunchy humor and scathing satire that continued into his final years. He was admired and reviled in equal measure.

His political activities saw him banned from the United States and censored on Italian television, and his flamboyant artistic antics resulted in repeated arrests.

In recent years, Fo became a point of reference for Italy's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, which eulogized him Thursday as a "spiritual guide."

Movement leader Beppe Grillo posted a video on his blog of a memorable Fo appearance at a 2013 rally giving impetus to the movement to shake up Italy's paralyzed political system.

"Do it yourselves, please! Do it yourselves! "Fo exhorted the crowd. "Please, turn everything upside down!"

The son of a railway worker and a farm hand, Fo had an early introduction to narrative traditions through his grandfather, a well-known storyteller. He studied painting at Milan's prestigious Brera Academy as well as architecture, and at age 25, he began to write and perform satirical cabarets at the Piccolo Theater in Milan.

A staunch leftist, Fo founded a theater company with his wife, the actress Franca Rame, later a senator. Rame died in 2013 at the age of 84.

The pair made a career out of mocking post-war Italy, ranging from the domestic terrorism of the late 1970s to the bitter debates over abortion and divorce and the political corruption scandal in the early 1990s that brought down a whole class of politicians and businessmen.

Dealing with subjects like the Vietnam War, the Chinese revolution and student revolts in the West, Fo and Rame took their works out of "bourgeois" theaters and into streets, piazzas, occupied factories and circus-style tents.

Italian bishops gagged on Fo's freewheeling interpretations of the Catholic faith.

When he won the 1997 Nobel Prize for Literature — which coincidentally was awarded for 2016 on the day of Fo's death, to Bob Dylan — the Vatican newspaper said it was simply "amazed."

"Giving the prize to an actor who is also an author of debatable texts — leaving aside every moral consideration — has surpassed all imagination," L'Osservatore Romano wrote at the time.

On Thursday, the pope's newspaper reported Fo's death briefly on the bottom of its culture page, noting that even for an atheist, some of Fo's works invoked "popular traditions where religiosity wasn't lacking."

Even while offering condolences, Fo's critics made clear his legacy left many with a bitter taste.

"I always considered him someone who was violently one-sided, someone who violently divided the country," said Renato Brunetta, a right-wing politician who said Fo had personally insulted him because of his short stature.

Fo's one-man show, Mistero Buffo, was perhaps his most celebrated, seen by millions of people around the world.

As his work grew more and more radical, Fo fell out of favor with state TV RAI, which banned him for more than decade. Prosecutors tried but failed to convict him of offending institutions like the national police force.

Some theorized that right-wing sympathizers among the police were behind the kidnapping and rape of Fo's wife by Italian neo-fascists on a Milan street in 1973, when the country's society was largely split ideologically between extreme right and left, and domestic extremist violence gripped the nation.

Not long after winning his Nobel, Fo wrote to Italy's president demanding justice in the case, even though the statute of limitations had expired.

Motivating him, Fo said, was not a thirst for revenge but a desire to help the country recognize the barbarities of that period and move on.

"Accidental Death of an Anarchist" drew from an event that continues to divide Italians, who are often bitterly split between left and right in a stubborn legacy of the ideological and actual battles between fascist stalwarts and communist partisans during World War II. The play is based on the fall from a police station window of an anarchist who was being questioned over a 1969 Milan bank bombing. The police officer who led the interrogation was fatally gunned down in 1972.

Fo's stature as an artist began to outstrip his fame as a militant by the end of the 1970s. Milan's La Scala theater let him direct a play, "Story of a Soldier," in 1978, and audiences in furs, jewels and suits flocked to his works in mainstream theaters.

Still, in 1980 he and Rame were refused visas to the United States because of their support for left-wing activities in Italy. The decision sparked controversy and prompted U.S intellectuals to stage protests in support. In 1984, the U.S. government relented and allowed the couple to visit New York to see a production of "Accidental Death of an Anarchist."

The Nobel Prize for literature came in 1997. The citation described Fo as a writer "who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden." Fo himself praised the Nobel committee for its courage in awarding it to him.

Guests attending his prize lecture in Stockholm in 1997 had a surprise as they opened their texts of the lecture. Instead of neatly printed paragraphs full of carefully worded thoughts, they found 25 pages of brightly colored drawings, with scattered words scrawled among them: "Provocation... ignorance of our times."

While he enraged the Vatican, Fo at least once ended up on the same side as the Catholic Church, when both lobbied vigorously — but unsuccessfully — to stop the 2000 execution in Virginia of Rocco Derek Barnabei, a U.S. citizen of Italian origin.

Fo pledged to donate some proceeds of his theater work to anti-death penalty causes around the world. Even though the husband-wife team snubbed the bourgeois theater route at times, the same bourgeoisie turned their plays into sold-out successes, notably Fo's 2003 spoof of then-Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, "The Two-Headed Anomaly." That play, at one of Rome's mainstream theaters, explored what many contended was the conflict of interest posed by a premier who was at the time also Italy's richest man, thanks to vast business holdings, largely in the media sector.

The work asked the entertaining question: what would happen if half of Russian President Vladimir Putin's brain was used to replace half of Berlusconi's brain? The play also pre-shadowed Berlusconi's real-life split with his second wife amid sex scandals embroiling the politician.

While Fo had fun with politicians' foibles, his own foray in politics was a failure. In 2006, he lost a bid in a primary to become the center-left's candidate for mayor of Milan.

On Thursday, Premier Matteo Renzi said with Fo's death, Italy had lost one of the leading protagonists of Italian culture and civil life.

"His satire, research, scenography and artistic activity will leave the inheritance of a great Italian to the world," Renzi said.

Fo and Rame had a son, Jacopo Fo, a writer, who was with him in Milan when he died, the hospital said.

A non-religious funeral was planned for Saturday in the piazza in front of Milan's Duomo cathedral. Milan planned a day of mourning for Saturday.

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