Wednesday, 5 January 2011


In Erik Gandini’s disturbing documentary about modern Italy, Videocracy (2009), we find that politics and media ownership have merged to produce the Frankenstein figure of Berlusconi, whose fixed grin dominates visual culture. Invoking dentistry as a form of ideology Gandini suggests that many regard Berlusconi’s smile with suspicion as “the front of a perfect system of politics and TV entertainment”. Gandini traces the emergence of what he terms “videocracy” over a thirty-year period as the “president of TV becomes the president of the country”. Central to this phenomenon has been the increasing dominance of celebrities and wannabe celebrities — most often veline or show girls — and the corrosive effects on gender equality, press freedom and Italian public life. “I want to marry a footballer,” declares a would-be velina, catching her breath after completing a thirty-second dance called the stachetto. Gandini’s light narration is interspersed with interviews with a ghoulish cast of characters: a rich TV agent and friend of Berlusconi who admires Mussolini (he displays his fascist ringtones with pride); a man who controls “photo snipers”, not to sell pictures to magazines, but to extort money directly from his victims (a kind of “digital parasite” perhaps); and an assorted cast of hangers on. Italian television has become a hideous portal into Berlusconi’s mind and his lavish parties in Sardinia have become the destination for an international set that includes Vladimir Putin (who also enjoys a stranglehold over the Russian media), the disgraced former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (whose manic grin has acquired its own infamy), and the sons of Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi. Berlusconi’s villa is conveniently located near to the Billionaire’s Club, where figures such as Paris Hilton and Denzel Washington flaunt their wealth alongside a desperate crowd of minor television personalities, aspiring weather presenters and sweaty businessmen.

In Berlusconi’s Italy, ordinary people, who lack real opportunities, are reduced to mere onlookers and spectators. And in a move beyond satire Berlusconi appoints a former velina, Mara Cafagna, to be his minister for gender equality: a logical extension to his post-feminist political firmament. At the end of the film Gandini reminds us that Italy is ranked 77th in terms of freedom of the press, 84th in gender equality, and some 80 % of Italians rely on television for information (of which 90 % is run by Berlusconi). Videocracy can be considered alongside two other striking examples of recent political cinema in Italy: Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo (2008) and Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah (2008). All three films present us with visceral insights into the limitations of European parliamentary democracy: although Italy may be the extreme case, the recent economic turbulence affecting the so-called “PIIGS” [Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain] has exposed deep levels of corporate and governmental maleficence in Greece, Ireland and elsewhere. As Hugh Masekela recently remarked, in an interview for BBC Radio 4, politics is an “international private club”, a perpetual nomenklatura of the wealthy and the well-connected. We would be foolish to regard Italy as an exception.

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