The American Interest

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Berlusconi’s Videocracy

Italy’s filmmakers rail against a citizenry reduced to spectatorship.

Published on May 1, 2010
Directed by Erik Gandini
85 Minutes (ATMO Media Network)

Nietzsche once said, “The world needs to be thickened by poetry.” What he meant by this, and by so many other cryptic but appealing notions that flowed from his pen, remains unclear. But one application, at least, is apparent: Those who devise and produce biopics and historical films in general must simultaneously evoke realities and entertain the viewer. To do that, facts need sometimes to be variously transformed, improved or rendered more adventurous or obviously dangerous. In short, thickened by poetry.

Paolo Sorrentino’s account of legendary Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti in the 2008 film Il Divo provides a perfect example of such a process. As Michael McDonald pointed out in these pages, “poetic license” plays an extremely important part in the structure of a work rife with elements of the surreal or the improbable.1 Sorrentino mixes fabricated dreams of the protagonist with scenes of murder, of orgy, of mafiosi. No device goes unused to make the film more dynamic, “sexier.” Andreotti, who was the leader of the moderate Christian Democracy Party (Democrazia Cristiana), became the filmic equal of Al Pacino or Marlon Brando in The Godfather trilogy. The historical figure was anything but sexy. With his big glasses and impassive demeanor, he was not an appealing hero (or even an appealing anti-hero) for a commercially ambitious international production. So the director transcended the biopic formula to create an “imaginary portrait” of the Italian statesman that lay somewhere between hyperreal and surreal, not literally true—that wasn’t Sorrentino’s aim—but even better: poetically real.

Giulio Andreotti could be compared to the 15th-century aristocrat Cosimo de Medici “the Elder”, the first important member of a dynasty that ended up ruling Florence for nearly four centuries: Both were as discreet and uncharismatic as they were influential and smart. The later Medici sovereigns had to forge an official image, a biopic of sorts, for their ancestor, shaping his myth by asking the best writers and artists to turn a prosaic man into a poetic icon. Cosimo the Elder was a successful merchant, indeed the most prominent man in his city, but he was also cautious and modest; his image reflected both. By contrast, Cosimo the Younger, who ruled as the first Grand Duke of Tuscany in the 16th century, revealed himself to be a much more flamboyant character, with no need for posthumous legend-building.

Cosimo the Elder, Cosimo the Younger: The distance between these two Florentine statesmen mirrors that between Sorrentino’s Il Divo and the new film by Erik Gandini, Videocracy, about Silvio Berlusconi. Videocracy breaks new ground as a form of political filmmaking, no doubt. It is an athletic genre-jumper. Whether it is also “true”, either as a representation of reality or as a form of cinematic poetry, is a harder question to answer. One reason is that any answer has to take into account the many prolegomena to Videocracy, which is hardly the first film about its subject.

Berlusconi is irresistible to Italians, and to Italian filmmakers. But unlike Andreotti, who isn’t charming but rather deeply enigmatic, Berlusconi has an incandescent personality, powerful enough to break camera lenses at fifty meters. This is why there isn’t a single movie that uses an actor to directly star as the current Presidente del Consiglio; no actor in Italy’s current firmament of stars can do him justice.

For instance, leading Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti conceived his most recent production, Il Caimano (2006) as a war machine against the host of the Palazzo Chigi. This comes as no surprise to Italians, who know Moretti for his strong leftist political orientation.2 The story follows a film producer who loses pride, faith and honesty, but experiences redemption by turning a flawed scenario into a coherent movie. The screenplay’s topic is Silvio Berlusconi’s imperial control over Italy’s media. Whatever one thinks of recursive little gimmicks like this, no one could accuse Moretti, the creator of the internationally acclaimed La stanza del figlio (The Son’s Room”, 2001), of being soft on his main enemy, since Il Caimano asserts the impossibility of giving a fair account of Italy in the rotten kingdom of the “Cavaliere” (Berlusconi’s nickname). Moreover, the film was set to have an immediate impact on the Italian people, since it was released in March 2006, just before national parliamentary elections in April, presumably to help Romano Prodi’s left-wing Unione Party defeat Berlusconi’s Casa delle Libertà (House of Freedoms) center-right coalition. And yet, the film packs this punch without portraying Berlusconi himself. How does it do this?

Since Il Caimano is, in a sense, about the making of itself, Moretti is able to pull off a double fake: In the film within the film, several star actors are invited to play Berlusconi, but they all refuse. In the final scene, Moretti himself plays an actor interpreting a character based on the real Berlusconi. This yields a double mimesis: No one could mistake that figure on screen for even a fictional equivalent of Berlusconi, but the scene is even more powerful for the flimsy shroud Moretti has created: It associates Berlusconi with acting. Berlusconi is thus rendered as the trickster who makes it impossible for Italians to figure out how they are being conned.

Whatever one’s politics or opinion of Berlusconi, this is damn clever. As Alexander Stille has pointed out, Berlusconi has such an incredible ability to talk on stage, without notes, perfectly at ease, that no one can credibly imitate him.3 He is too good an actor, the kind of actor who, as he plays a part, actually believes he is the character himself. This makes it impossible to effectively dramatize or fictionalize Berlusconi, because he has already conquered and monopolized the stage. His own career has merged fiction and drama, and no one can split them apart.

Thus most of the expressions commonly used to comment on Berlusconi’s various activities aren’t appropriate to statesmanship or politics but to stardom or, perhaps more accurately, to celebrity. Thus the November 2009 Italian edition of Rolling Stone crowned him “rock star of the year”, alluding to his passion for crooner singing. Journalists have dubbed him Italy’s “playboy in chief” and “an Italian Mirror”, an allusion to the fact that his countrymen consider him to be “one of them.”4

It is quite the spectacle, and many Italians are obviously enthralled by it. But such staging tends to banalize the substance of politics, and many first-rank Italian intellectuals are fighting to restore the proper gravitas to the political process. Thus Umberto Eco, in his editorials for the weekly magazine L’Espresso, has called Berlusconi ”the enemy of the press” thanks to the aggressive campaign led in May 2009 by the Berlusconi-owned papers against Dino Boffo, editor in chief of L’Avvenire, a Catholic journal that dared criticize Berlusconi’s much publicized moral and marital lapses. Boffo posed a serious threat to Berlusconi, namely, a potential alliance between Catholic traditionalists, on the one hand, and left-wing politicians grouped around La Repubblica and L’Espresso, on the other. It would have been difficult for the government to have defended itself from accusations of moral and political misbehavior coming from such alliance, and the danger in failure was that it would have disconnected Berlusconi from the traditional values of Italian society—and above all else the Presidente del Consiglio has always tried to appear a follower of his country’s old laws. In the event, Berlusconi’s attack on Boffo, which hurled accusations of homosexuality and dredged up other past offenses, worked. On September 3, Boffo resigned his editorship, citing extreme hardship visited on his family by the campaign of vilification directed at him.

This incident illustrates yet again Berlusconi’s genius for creating images he can render translucent or opaque as necessary. He is a traditionalist at one moment, self-made-man at another. This duality makes him an extremely difficult politician to capture on film, or in a standard political frame. If one illuminates his failures and his dishonesty, one implies that he knowingly broke the law. At the same time, one must confront the fact that many Italians see him as a role model.5 That is why the political opposition to his government in Parliament finds itself in such an awkward spot. It must campaign against weak points in the Prime Minister’s armor: his adulterous dalliances with young women, his misuse of money, the conflict of interest between the private and public television channels. But these transgressions are precisely what fascinate the audience—the majority, it seems, of the Italian electorate. When Berlusconi wants to slip a political punch, he becomes a star; when he wants to accrue profit and power, he removes the costume.

What Italy’s filmmakers have understood better than its politicians is that, if one wants to confront the Berlusconi empire, one needs to confront not the man but the cavalry of images he has created to protect and advance himself. Nanni Moretti did it: Il Caimano hit Berlusconi where it really hurt, offstage, in the dressing room. By stripping away the costumes and the mythology, Moretti made Berlusconi into a cross between a clown and a gangster. The Russian-born historian Ernst Kantorowicz has noted that in the Middle Ages the king had two identities, two “bodies”: a physical and a spiritual one. One might say that Berlusconi’s charisma and energy reside in his symbolic political body, and that attacking him as a mere flawed politician, as the filmmakers have done, is the key to defeating him.

With that insight, we may understand what drives Erik Gandini’s Videocracy. Presented as an unofficial selection at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, it takes, first of all, traditional documentary form. This is in itself a fundamental aspect of the project: A documentary, by definition, is a factual record of reality, and the mission of Videocracy is to desacralize the image of the Prime Minister and analyze the hideous reality of the system he controls. It does so by juxtaposing archival images of Italy’s premier against the reality of the system he has created, generating a controlled dissonance in the viewer. Once again, the Prime Minister himself very rarely appears in the film. In the main Berlusconi is present through the testimonies of other individuals. And what they all testify to is that Italy has become a “videocracy”—a democracy or an autocracy (it hardly matters which, it is implied) now ruled by “video.” The electronic media, as it has become under Berlusconi’s control, dominates and debases public discourse. Gandini thus uses video, in the form of his documentary, as an antidote against a civilization—really a form of barbarism—itself ruled by video.

Gandini uses every possible filmic device to reinforce this antidote. Take the musical score: The film’s most evocative images are matched to melodramatic music, as if Gandini were making a political thriller. The juxtaposition of such overboard music against the quotidian nature of the images on screen is transparently manipulative, which is precisely the subtext Gandini is trying to convey about Berlusconi’s politics. In this way and others, Gandini attempts to deconstruct the Berlusconi system at both the micro and macro levels. The film first takes the perspective of people who are close to the Prime Minister. Of course, the point of view is biased or at least only takes into account one side of reality. Gandini could have asked Gianfranco Fini, the President of the House, for an interview, or Cesare Previti, a former Minister, Senator and Representative at the Camera dei Deputati, also known as Silvio Berlusconi’s “adviser for illegal affairs.”6 He could have sought out Fedele Confalonieri, the Cavaliere’s lifelong friend who chaired his company Mediaset when he entered into politics. Gandini didn’t invite any of Berlusconi’s colleagues because he preferred to highlight his connection to the jet set and the life of glamour. One of those featured is Lele Mora, Italy’s top talent agent, who takes us on a tour of his house and his friends, nearly all of whom have starred in reality television shows.

Undoubtedly, examining Berlusconi through an agent instead of his fellow politicians shows that the focus isn’t on his activity as head of a government but on the deepest roots of that government’s power: its media and star-system. Gandini also features Fabrizio Corona, a paparazzo kingpin who became an unlikely symbol of “social resistance” to those in power when he was imprisoned for a brazen campaign of blackmail against celebrities and politicians’ relatives (including Berlusconi’s own daughter). Lele Mora and Corona are useful main characters in Gandini’s account of “Videocratic” Italy because they’re so famous. People worship them. And because of what? Television. So Gandini uses celebrity to attack celebrity, television to attack television, which Silvio Berlusconi has shaped in Italy ever since he created his first television network, Telemilano, in 1978.

More specifically, Gandini connects Berlusconi as politician, manager and businessman to everyone in his movie whose life has changed because of television. Corona went to jail because he used illegal and disturbing pictures of celebrities for fun and profit. He even used the television broadcast of his trial to brand himself and create a very profitable business selling clothes and accessories. Lele Mora earned money, gobs of it, from television, too, by promoting and exploiting those who craved fame.

What’s more, Mora is an admirer of Benito Mussolini. In one of the film’s strongest scenes, Mora presents a video on his cell phone to the viewer in which Nazi and fascist symbols are associated with political anthems from that period. There is no comment from the documentary’s narrator; he just lets this solemn tribute paid to totalitarianism by an influential man stand on its own. One might interpret this scene as evocative of what Italy has become: a video within a videocracy that is no more democratic than was Italy in the 1930s.

Everyone in the film is linked to the Cavaliere, whether directly or indirectly: Mora knows him, Corona knows Mora. The implication is clear: The opinions expressed by Sua Emittenza (another of the Prime Minister’s nicknames, a contraction of “Sua Eminenza”, an expression applied to cardinals, and “emittere”, the verb used for television broadcasting) on Mussolini’s regime, which he admires, are a model for other citizens of his country. And Mussolini, recall, was quite the showman too.

The most touching character in Videocracy is a 26-year-old man who lives with his parents and doesn’t have a girlfriend, because when he goes out on dates, his mother spies on him. But he has a dream: to participate in a television show. Not just any show, but one he has invented as a new form of entertainment: a mix of martial arts and dance, emulating both Jackie Chan and Ricky Martin.

This, too, is damn clever. Gandini has hit on the perfect metaphor for the reality of Silvio Berlusconi’s power: He can hurt you, but he can entertain you, too. And everyone can dream, can fantasize about being someone else, like the hero out of a novel named Il Cavaliere. It is a dream that Berlusconi’s media empire encourages viewers (and voters) to indulge in to their heart’s content. It’s just that everything they dream, he owns.

The dreams recur, too. The sensational headlines in Italy in recent months border on the unbelievable. Berlusconi with women so young that they might be mistaken for his granddaughters. His wife calls him a pervert, and he merely smiles. A maniac attacks Berlusconi at a rally, sending him to the hospital, and images of his bloodied face splash across newspapers worldwide. The assailant apologizes and Berlusconi is gracious. Is this real, or some kind of farce? One might suppose that Gandini’s movie, made before all of this happened, was prophetic. But all these recent events—the mafia scandals, the bribery, the prostitutes and underage girls, the orgies and violence—have taken place before, too. They followed a “shift of civilization”, as Paul Ginsborg put it, beginning in the 1980s, which Silvio Berlusconi used, embodied and shaped as an actor, a symbol and a symptom.7

There is something naggingly odd about the neologism “Videocracy.” Although the movie is in Italian, Videocracy is an English-sounding word. This is not a coincidence. Gandini knows that America is a subtext of the entire Berlusconi phenomenon, the man and his empire. This subtext is part and parcel of the image that Berlusconi and most Italians have of the nexus between their present culture and that of America. One of Berlusconi’s first choices in the organization of his newly created television channel, Telemilano, was to buy the rights for the series Dallas. Berlusconi, whose idol is Frank Sinatra, has always been fascinated by the country to which so many of his countrymen immigrated. He has therefore always wanted to appear as the “American” Italian, using elements from both identities. He wants to own the image of America in Italy, too.

This may explain some of Berlusconi’s recent apparent blunders. He has referred to President Obama’s “sun-tan” repeatedly—as if to emphasize that the first mention was no mere gaffe. Indeed, having done so, he repeated it. Perhaps he feels threatened by the rise of an American leader who appeals to Italians and embodies a dream with which he cannot compete. Obama is taking back the image of America in Italy, a grievous problem in Berlusconi’s kingdom of images. In a videocracy a politician is not just a statesman and a ruler; he has to be an actor and an image master in order to do the job for which he has been elected. The challenge is to provide the viewer-citizen with a story full of dreams and fantasies, a romanzo all’Italiana. This is what Gandini shows us, a feat made possible not only by the political surreality that Berlusconi has created, but by the skill of Italian political filmmaking, a set of skills Italy’s politicians seem powerless to match.

1McDonald, “The Essential Italian”, The American Interest (July/August 2009).
2The rather incestuous character of Italian political cinema is illustrated by the fact that Sorrentino played the part of a character named Marito di Aidra in Il Caimano. The discerning movie-goer in Italy knows this, and connects dots accordingly.
3Stille, The Sack of Rome: Media+Money+Celebrity=Power=Berlusconi (Penguin Press, 2006), pp. 19–20.
4See Christopher Dickey, “Silvio, It’s Time to Go”, Newsweek, October 19, 2009, and Beppe Severgnini, “Silvio Berlusconi: An Italian Mirror”, Time, May 11, 2009.
5See Anne Applebaum, “La Dolce Berlusconi”, Washington Post, October 13, 2009.
6Stille, The Sack of Rome, p. 34.
7Ginsborg, A History of Contemporary Italy (Penguin, 1990), p. 424.

Donatien Grau graduated in literature at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.