by Peter Byrne
(Swans - April 10, 2006) Nanni Moretti's Il Caimano can't decide whether to take on Silvio Berlusconi or not. The film, which, let's hope, will be Englished as The Crocodile or at least The Gator, and not The Cayman, came out March 24th across Italy after some discussion about whether a political film should be shown in a lead up to the election. This falls on April 9-10 and Italian law limits what can be said and by whom in the final days. Since the reptile was known to be none other than candidate Berlusconi appearing under his own name, Left and Right made up their minds about the film long before it opened.
The Right was unanimous in both refusing to see the film and condemning it out of hand. Some judgments should be preserved for posterity. The politico Sandro Bondi outdid the Christian Democrats who in stump speeches used to talk about "parallel convergence": "Such a film," he said, "can only be the fruit of a Fascist culture and a Communist culture in fusion." Another point man, Emilio Fede, stymied a reporter with a Latin retort: De minimis non curat praetor.
For their part, Moretti's fans on the Left swallowed his intentions whole. He had been all too clear about these in print. His model was Francesco Rosi's Hands over the City and his concern was for the salubrity of public life. He didn't aim to win votes from the Right or to confirm the certainties of the Left, but to sow doubt. Il Caimano, he pointed out in a cute distinction, may have Berlusconi in it, but it wasn't about him. Anyway, as an artist, Moretti stood above all that, even if he couldn't leave the subject of the supremo alone. Preaching, he abhorred. His film would simply show how low Italy had sunk. Friendly critics eagerly agreed that all this was in the film they saw.
A film about Berlusconi would be painful to imagine and certainly could tell us nothing new. An election ago, he had his biography sent to every household in Italy. He's been his countrymen's chief talking point for years. They can't get away from him. He pervades the nation like the Union Stock Yards used to be inescapable for Chicago noses. His sycophants call him the "national Silvio" as if he outnumbers Fiat automobiles. He appears constantly on his three major TV channels and butts in on the RAI public networks. The Economist claims he in fact controls 90% of Italian television. His presence can also be felt anywhere else that money and power can get him space, including the major newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses he owns. Opposition papers are just as full of him, detailing his clowning and misdeeds. Who doesn't know about his court cases, when he's found guilty but then, well, not really? Recently in Naples he told his public that not only had the Chinese boiled babies for soup, they used the leftovers for fertilizer. No one could transmute a boor like that into Citizen Bane with a rosebud in his past.
Moretti's knows all this. Splitting hairs between making a film about someone or simply having that person in it only finesses the problem. A character ridicules the project of the film within the film as retailing tired old headlines. He'd rather make a straightforward comedy and bursts into song so as not to hear any more about Il presidente del Consiglio. That's about it. Berlusconi is every Italian's sleazy uncle, the one who panders to the worst in them and with a wink says not to worry. It hurts less to keep singing than to recognize the family resemblance.
It could be that because everyone knows Berlusconi's story so well, Moretti chose to put another man's drama at the center of his film. The excellent comic actor Bruno Bonomo plays a bumbling B-movie producer. He adores his two little boys and actress wife (Margherita Buy), but she insists on a separation -- we are spared her reasons. There follows a touching father-bereft-and-adrift tale with many shots of the little ones asleep or on the soccer pitch.
Bonomo's jealousy, reined in by third millennium etiquette, forsakes traditional operatics, and he gives an endearing performance as the big kid who suffers most in a broken marriage. Moretti, who has always had a sharp eye for intimate family goings-on, livens up the separation with rapid, variegated scenes of busy modern city life. The family story, with Bonomo walking a delicate line between pathetic comedy and real suffering, could just about stand on its own feet. But haven't we been invited to hiss at Berlusconi?
We will catch up to the Crocodile by way of Bonomo's work as a producer. First there's a lot of stale material to work through: jokes about B-films, madcap movie financing, and even a Fellini-like trip to the seaside where a costume drama is being made. Is anyone still laughing at actors playing sunny idealists who are revealed as thorough slobs in real life? Call it a hommage, and let it pass, but don't wake Federico.
A pretty, tyro film director (Jasmine Trinka) entangles the stunned Bonomo in her project to make an anti-Berlusconi movie. And we begin to see scenes of the top banana in the producer's head or in some unidentified elsewhere. Moretti has solved the problem of how to imitate Berlusconi in the only reasonable way: by not seriously trying. Since Italians know Il Cavaliere to the last surgeon's tuck, any attempt at a facsimile would have looked amateurish. Instead, as Trinka and Bonomo's moviemaking breaks down repeatedly for want of money or fear of reprisals, three actors are called on to succeed in the role. This relieves them of the unfair competition from the Crocodile himself. For Moretti will insert two film clips of Berlusconi that outshine any actor-comedian. One shows him making a fool of himself and Italy with cheap wisecracks in the European Parliament and the other before a Milan criminal court detailing with unction how he takes care with his Christmas list so as not to send the same diamond broach to the same politician's wife two years running.
Elio De Capitani, as the first Mr. B., shows him obtaining the cash windfall of presumed Mafia money that started his business career as a smooth and vulgar salesman and despoiler of taste on television. Michele Placido then takes up the role. His character boasts a Leftist past but takes fright for his future and backs out after delivering some crude and oily Berlusconi bromides. The Crocodile has become a politician and must confront the legendary (honest) journalist, now dead, Indro Montanelli, who tells him, "You only got into politics so you could keep out of jail." Finally in the last minutes, Nanni Moretti himself assumes the role. He seems suddenly to remember that Berlusconi's hash hasn't been settled yet. A solemn note is heard and we pass from common knowledge to prophecy. We see Berlusconi in court being found definitively guilty of the charges that have in fact hung over him for years. He responds by threatening the judge, and his followers actually take to violence.
A Polish visitor, among the film's characters, says that Italy always surprises. It sinks to the very bottom, but down there some Italians are still digging in the mud to go deeper. Another character says that Berlusconi, during his first term in office a decade ago, weakened the fiber of Italians for good. Moretti's admirers assured us that Il Caimano would show what Italy has been reduced to. Alas, it doesn't, and we see little of the reptile's slime on society at large. Getting divorced, making brainless movies, or, like Trinka, forming a lesbian couple with child hardly plumbs the depths of national perdition. If Moretti had in mind something like Ginger and Fred where Fellini showed that TV degraded everyone and everything, he didn't get his vision on to celluloid.
Nanni said he didn't want to be Mooretti. But Italians can't forget American models and Michael Moore has been part of the Il Caimano controversy from the first. The Right insisted there would be a boomerang effect. Some of the Left leadership feared so too. Both sides seemed to exaggerate the votes that Fahrenheit 9/11 actually won or lost. Moretti, with his talk of art being above the fray and his disdain for documentaries, missed the lesson Moore taught beyond any question of genre: You either come to grips with the big beast straight on or you look the other way. It's no good hitting out at him and then running off to spin another tale. That's hedging your bets and all the press conferences in the world can't make Moretti's family drama enlighten his goading of the Crocodile, or vice versa.
Yet Nanni Moretti remains an asset for Italy. His do-it-yourself-with-friends approach to filmmaking, full of artisan bustle, is refreshing. Small may not always be better, but it's consoling to have around. His personal tension between narcissism and self-criticism made him the ideal chronicler of the ultra Left's disenchantment in the 1970s (Io sono un autarchico, Ecce Bombo). At the end of the 1980s he took a hard steady look at the disarray of mainline Communists as their party was drastically scaled down and splintered (Palombella Rossa, La Cosa). In 1991 he hit out at the corrupt Craxi government (The Footman) and in 1998 gave an account of disillusion with the Left's time in power (Aprile). All this was recorded with warmth and wit, as were the non-political stories he filmed over the same years (Sweet Dreams, Bianca, The Mass is Over).
One of these, The Son's Room, was awarded the Palme d'Or in 2001 at Cannes where Moretti has been appreciated since he won the Best Director Award in 1994 for Dear Diary. Now, a whole month before the official Festival press conference, Danielle Heymann, a Festival consultant, has predicted Il Caimano's triumph at Cannes. Let's hope garlanding Nanni Moretti does more harm to Silvio Berlusconi than Cannes' promotion of Michael Moore hurt George W. Bush in 2004.
A film review all the way from Italy! Please support Swans. Thank you.