Italian-born Swede Erik Gandini’s documentary Videocracy turns the camera on the power of television in Berlusconi’s celebrity-obsessed Italy.
Image Is Everything by Laura Bennett
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
In a country where bella figura is a national pastime, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is the maestro of media manipulation. Having risen to political primacy with the aid of his Mediaset empire, he now controls 90% of the bel paese’s television channels including the state-run RAI network. Quantity, it seems, does not equal quality. Fed on a diet of semi-naked dancing girls, inane competitions and rickety reality shows built around the most ridiculous of premises, is it any wonder that Italians are becoming a nation of fame-hungry wannabes? Gandini is quick to point out that 80% of the population relies on television as their only source of information, bemoaning the decline of this once most artistic of countries.
Although the blame for this cultural degradation is laid firmly at the feet of il Cavaliere, perhaps unsurprisingly, Berlusconi himself does not appear in person in Videocracy but through the sharp-eyed montages of press conferences and personal appearances which punctuate the film. Narrating his film in English against a menacing, foreboding soundtrack, Gandini’s documentary is a personal, exile’s view, populated by a kaleidoscope of characters, all working in, feeding off or desperate to break into Italian television.
In his trademark “show, don’t tell” style, he focuses his lens on Ricky Canevali, the Italian cross between Ricky Martin and Jean-Claude Van Damme, desperate for his big break; on Lele Mora, the bloated, white-linen clad TV agent and close associate of Berlusconi who surrounds himself with beautiful people half his age; on the bleached blonde perma-tanned ageing Marella Giovanelli who, with apparently unique access to the inner circle of the glitterati, funds her lifestyle by selling celebrity photographs online. And last, but definitely not least, comes the self-styled “modern-day Robin Hood – stealing from the rich and keeping the money for myself”, the hideous hybrid creation, part-paparazzo, part extortionist, Fabrizio Corona. Corona makes his money selling compromising photos back to celebrities keen to stop their publication, and has clearly cornered the Italian market in terms of tasteless antics. It’s a veritable line-up of Italy’s Got Talent.
Gandini also gives centre stage to the showgirls or veline that have become a sexist staple of the schedules. Italian signorine grow up dreaming of being plucked from shopping-mall obscurity to shake their stuff in the 30-second dance routines that accompany most prime-time Mediaset shows. One blonde, one brunette is the standard, catch-all pairing. The ultimate goal for these popular princesses is to marry a footballer. Videocracy ultimately closes with some sobering statistics, amongst which the sobering fact that Italy is ranked 84th in the world in terms of gender equality. Again, the director is careful not to judge these young girls, to show but not to tell.
Above these favoured individuals (your break’s never going to get any bigger than this, Ricky!) circles the spectre of Berlusconi. All part of the shiny happy domain of showbiz and celebrity excess, it is Fabio Calvi, director of Grande Fratello (Big Brother), who relates these colourful characters back to Berlusconi. The world of Italian television is a shimmering, feel good, universe where flesh-flashing, large-breasted women dance and smile broadly, where anything goes and fun is had by all. Calvi suggests that this grown-up Disneyland is an extension of Silvio’s personality and, given that he is a man with a remote-controlled volcano in the grounds of his Sardinian villa, such a leap is easily made.
With an increasingly polarised electorate, a mounting economic crisis, chronic unemployment, and an ongoing struggle with organised crime, Berlusconi’s superficial smoke screen of fun and games seems to be doing the trick. The Romans kept the plebs contented by handing out free tickets for spectacles at the Colosseum, so why shouldn’t this work for a modern-day Caesar? As the interspersed aerial shots of suburban Italian apartment blocks imply, it is the everyday citizens that Berlusconi is concerned with, it is they who continue to vote him in, much to the amazement of the educated, cultured classes and the astonished international community.
Gandini’s Videocracy undoubtedly has a powerful message in a country where press freedom is not easily taken for granted, yet it’s a message that it struggles to maintain, lacking any real or new informative punch. Taking centre stage as a stand-in for the absent Berlusconi, Fabrizio Corona becomes the star, something that clearly sits well on the broad, buffed shoulders of this preening and unashamedly Italian stallion, but which does little to really further Gandini’s argument.
All is not lost in Italy it seems. In spite of his all-out assault on the cultural senses, Berlusconi is becoming increasingly unpopular and the voices of dissent are becoming harder to ignore. December’s nationwide demonstrations on the occasion of “no-Berlusconi day” and the attention currently being given in Cannes to Sabina Guzzanti’s Draquila: L’Italia Che Trema show that the movement for change could be reaching a crescendo.
Videocracy is released in the UK on June 4 2010