Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 3, 2010


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:06 pm

Opening at the IFC Center in New York on February 12th, Erik Gandini’s documentary “Videocracy” examines how Silvio Berlusconi’s control of Italian television facilitates control over a population that appears even more addicted to junk TV than the U.S.’s. One might even wonder if Gandini chose the title “Videocracy” in honor of a similar but fictional film titled “Idiocracy” directed by Mike Judge of “Beavis and Butt-head” fame. This is from my November 2007 review:

Mike Judge’s world of 2506 is a lot like today’s world, except even worse. Fed by a diet of stupid television shows and movies like “Knocked Up,” they have forgotten how to read a book and can barely speak. Their language is a mixture of grunts, slacker style “ya knows” and locker room profanity–both from men and women. Anybody who is the least bit articulate, including [hero] Joe Bauers, is seen as a “faggot”.

Watching “Videocracy”, you get the impression that the whole of Italy has been sent to Mike Judge’s future world. We meet a 26 year old machinist named Rick Canelli who is practicing karate moves on the front lawn of the house he shares with his mother. After he is finished with his work-out, he tells us that unless you appear on television in Italy, you are nothing. Or more exactly, you are condemned to do work as a machinist or whatever capitalist society has assigned you to do as a function of class origins and education. Canelli dreams of being a contestant on what appears to be the Italian version of American Idol, on one of the three private stations owned by Berlusconi. (He also controls the public stations by virtue of being prime minister. All in all, he has 90 percent of the airwaves locked up.)

Canelli says that he will be the first person on TV ever to combine martial arts moves and singing like Ricky Martin. He says that he can be the next Jean Van Damme, but with singing. After we see him auditioning, it is clear that he can sing just about as well as Van Damme. Like most people who audition for such shows (including American Idol, now in its 9th execrable season), he has no idea of how bad he is. But nevertheless they try out because the reality of being a machinist or a nurse for the rest of their lives is unbearable. It is Berlusconi’s dubious distinction to have made what appears to be all of Italy hungering for the chance to be on television in the spirit of Andy Warhol’s 1968 observation that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” In Berlusconi’s Italy, that observation seems truer than ever.

After meeting Cantelli, we meet somebody at the top of the food chain, one Lele Mora, an unpleasantly plump middle-aged man dressed habitually in white, who is Italy’s most powerful television talent agent and a long-time friend of Berlusconi. Gandini interviews him at his palatial estate on the island of Sardinia where he offers up typical insider show biz chatter of the type you might hear on the Jay Leno show, but things take a distinctly sinister turn when Mora confesses, with not a moment’s hesitation, that he is a big fan of Mussolini and then proceeds to play a music video of a fascist anthem, swastikas and all, on his cell phone.

We next meet Fabrizio Corona, a young former protégé and employee of Mora who is heavily tattooed and muscled. He looks like a Calvin Klein model and sounds like an Italian version of Simon Cowell but with fewer scruples. Corona is a new kind of paparazzi who makes his money selling compromising photos back to the celebrities who are his victims. Corona says that he resolved to start such a career because the celebrities he was meeting through Mora were nothing but idiots. You can only conclude that he is an excellent position to judge such people in “it takes one to know one” terms. He also describes himself as a modern-day Robin Hood since he steals from the rich and keeps the money.

Although I can recommend Gandini’s documentary as a piquant introduction to some of the gargoyles who sit on top of Italy’s celebrity-driven mass media today, the movie does not really dig too deep into the underlying social and political reality that has put Berlusconi in the driver’s seat.

For that you need to consult some of the long-time radical observers of the Italian political scene like historian Paul Ginsborg and journalist Alexander Stille who have both written biographies of Berlusconi. Stille is also the author of “Excellent Cadavers”, a study of the Sicilian Mafia that was turned into an excellent documentary that he narrated.

In the May-June 2003 New Left Review article titled “The Patrimonial Ambitions of Silvio B”, Ginsborg explains how the sleazy politician/media mogul took advantage of the sexism that pervades Italian society:

Another strong connexion between Christian Democracy and the House of Liberties, all to the detriment of the Left, lies in the long-term patterns of gender voting. After the war the culture of the Church and that of Italian women overlapped in a very strong way. It was with some trepidation that both the French and the Italian Left had agreed to universal suffrage in the period 1945–47. Nearly sixty years later, women over the age of 55 and those who are practising Catholics still show a very marked preference for the centre-right. However, the pattern of women’s voting in the 2001 elections is not limited to this unsurprising fact. An extraordinary 44.8 per cent of housewives—in themselves a significant social category, given the low percentages of female occupation in Italy—voted not just for the centre-right but specifically for Forza Italia. Furthermore, the more television women watched, the more they showed a propensity to vote for Silvio Berlusconi. 42.3 per cent of those who watched more than three hours a day voted for Forza Italia, compared to 31.6 per cent of those who only watched between one or two hours daily. The connexions between housework and the advertising of commodities, between the consumption of goods and the formation of subjectivities, between female viewing and the packaged messages of the charismatic male political figure, are here to be found in striking form.

For his part, Stille supplies crucial information about the dirty role played by the Italian Socialist Party leader in enabling Berlusconi’s rise to power in a Nation Magazine article titled “Emperor of the Air” from November 29, 1999:

Squeezed on the judicial and financial fronts, Berlusconi launched a political campaign that took Italy by storm. He combined telegenic charm, can-do entrepreneurial rhetoric and a confident “It’s morning in Italy” smile. Berlusconi was anything but a political outsider: He needed to enter politics because party protection had always been central to his entrepreneurial success. As a young real estate developer in the early seventies, Berlusconi convinced politicians to reroute the flight patterns of a Milan airport, turning a noisy and unattractive piece of real estate into a financial gold mine. In his rise as a real estate and, later, media mogul, Berlusconi was provided critical assistance by Bettino Craxi, whose ascent to the top of the Italian Socialist Party coincided with Berlusconi’s own rising prominence. Craxi built the Socialist Party on a vast system of political patronage and bribery that financed the party and feathered his own nest.

Various judicial authorities saw through the ruse and tried to shut down Berlusconi’s operation. When the battle came to a head and Fininvest was threatened with a court-ordered blackout, Craxi, then prime minister, issued a special decree keeping Berlusconi’s television stations on the air. Berlusconi’s gratitude was expressed in several ways. He made Craxi the best man at his wedding to his second wife. And prosecutors in Milan have located at least” $6 million that was moved from foreign bank accounts belonging to Fininvest to bank accounts in Tunisia they insist are controlled by Craxi.

Although it is beyond the scope of this review, it should be mentioned that Berlusconi’s rise to power has been made easier by the fecklessness of the Italian left, of which the Socialists are one of the main components.

A promising new left party called Rifondazione Comunista made the mistake of forming a coalition government with the Socialists and bourgeois parties headed by one Romano Prodi. This bourgeois politician, serving possibly as an inspiration for Barack Obama, then proceeded to use his leftist backing as a way to pass legislation that led to the deployment of Italian troops in Lebanon in 2006. The disillusionment of the left in this umpteenth attempt at a popular front led to Berlusconi’s election. Like the U.S., Italian politics appears mired in videocracy (cf. Mayor Bloomberg) and lesser-evil Sisyphean frustrations.


  1. Although it is beyond the scope of this review, it should be mentioned that Berlusconi’s rise to power has been made easier by the fecklessness of the Italian left, of which the Socialists are one of the main components.
    I didn’t think that ANYTHING was beyond the scope of this review 😉

    Comment by Harvey Karten — February 3, 2010 @ 9:36 pm

  2. I’m glad you single out Stille and Ginsborg who are excellent commentators on the Italian scene. Italian TV is as bad as Gandini portrays it–I can hear some ghastly variety show coming through my apartment walls right now–but you’re right that he doesn’t dig very deep for reasons. American TV may be mostly vulgar but even the worst of it shows technical competence. Italian TV is not only vulgar but sloppily made. This is strange in a country with a solid theatrical tradition and until recently full of good film makers. The slipshod workmanship probably reflects Berlusconi himself. The up-to-date capitalists here don’t think much of him as a businessman. He simply built up a fortune with Mafia financing and then bought everyone he needed.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — February 3, 2010 @ 10:43 pm

  3. It is not just Italy, even in England of all places this culture is becoming normal. Abi Titmus became what can only be described as a professional Hussy after giving up Nursing and this was seem as a good career move!

    Comment by James — February 4, 2010 @ 5:30 pm

  4. True, it’s the same throughout the “developed” world. Having his mug on TV, even behind a custard pie, is 21st century man’s way of convincing himself he exists. But the Italian situation is special in that the no.1 political figure is also the no.1 TV clown. Merkel, Blair-Brown, Sarkozy and Zapatero, whatever their failings, are of their time. Berlusconi is strictly archaic. His elevator shoes, hair piece and face heavy with make-up don’t prevent 50% of Italians from identifying with him. Whatever blunder he makes, vile opinion he emits or crime he commits, they say, “Look he’s just as bad as we are. I’m voting for him.” For months he’s only concerned himself with changing the laws so he won’t have to go to jail. The other day he said the one way to stop crime was to stop immigration. Today at the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem he told a joke in which the Virgin Mary delivered the punch line. When asked what he thought about the cement wall suffocating the city, he said he hadn’t noticed it. His thoughts were on higher things. He’d already been a wow at the Knesset where he congratulated Israel for its “just reaction” against the people of Gaza. The papers call all this “Lo show di Silvio.”

    Comment by Peter Byrne — February 4, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

  5. […] Dalser worships Mussolini and sells her business in order to help him get a fascist newspaper off the ground. She appears less motivated by ideology than hero worship, however. When her idol breaks with her, her tenuous hold on reality begins to fade. As a symbol of the Italian nation, she is a useful reminder of how sexism facilitates authoritarian government in a country that never fully completed a bourgeois revolution. It is the same kind of subordination to male authority and charisma that you can see in the excellent documentary Videocracy. […]

    Pingback by Three recent movies « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — May 28, 2010 @ 6:08 pm

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