[ed. The first part of this essay was published on August 9, 2010.]
(Swans - August 23, 2010) Berlusconi's Italy is a capital material for a writer. A character that could have been born in the imagination of a comic book writer becomes the leader of a Western country. A cartoon madcap becomes real and flashes his surgically enhanced smile. Very funny. But imagine if, say, the Joker left the funny papers and movies to become, with his re-heated flesh and bones, president of the United States? Imagine as well that he owned all the most important mass media in the country. Who then would still draw comic books or make movies about the Joker? Artists would remain silent and feel like puppets in the hands of Mr. Big. Could they continue to call Batman a hero? In any case, their Batman would be a literary creation. This Joker is a real man. He's the boss and the wealthiest man in the nation. TV news would tell us daily that the Joker is virtuous and that Batman hates him out of envy. (TV journalists would have orders to mutilate the name.)
A Joker's World Syndrome has gripped Italy for two decades. But no powerful artist has managed to create a major work showing what the country is going through. I asked three friends of mine for their thoughts: Ms. Chiara Santomiero, a Catholic journalist of the center-left, member of the Democratic Party; Gianfranco Pannone, a director of documentaries; and Salvatore De Mola, an author of TV series and a script doctor. Could they name an Italian masterwork of our times?
Chiara cited Quiet Chaos ("Caos calmo"), a novel published in 2005 by Sandro Veronesi. He's authored several studies of Italian society. The Force of the Past (2000, English translation 2004), tells of a son who discovers that his late father, a Christian Democrat, was a KGB agent. In Quiet Chaos, Pietro is a 40-year-old executive whose life falls apart suddenly when his wife dies from an aneurysm. He spends all his time on a bench in front of his daughter's school where a small crowd joins him, not with consolation, but to make him listen to their own problems and sorrows. Both Veronesi's novels became bestsellers, won important prizes, and were made into movies. The actor who played Pietro in the 2008 movie was the renowned leftist director Nanni Moretti. In 2006 he made Il caimano, a story of a small-time director who, despite a ravaged private life, tries to make a biopic of Berlusconi. In the movie, Moretti plays Berlusconi. These works were highly appreciated by moviegoers, but their stories are too far-fetched and symbolic to do justice to the historical moment.
The 6-hour TV film The Best of Youth ("La meglio gioventù," 2003), by Marco Tullio Giordana, follows a family through forty years of history and though well worth watching doesn't encapsulate our predicament. Your Whole Life Ahead of You ("Tutta la vita davanti," 2008) by Paolo Virzì, based on a memoir of Michela Murgia, a university graduate who worked for some time in a call center, and Virzi's The World Must Know ("Il mondo deve sapere," 2006), are two sharp depictions of Italy today. [See Correction added August 27, 2010.] But neither is a masterpiece. The Joker's World Syndrome has made for a light touch and soft tones, an attempt to please every reader. A masterwork ought to be more pungent, even sour or bitter. I asked Chiara whether she thought Italians have moved away from their artists. After all, the makers of art in the 20th century were in the main leftists.
Her answer was clear and sweeping. Italians now consider the public domain the supreme enemy and despise any sort of tax. This mindset is the origin of every problem. If in the 1950s "amoral family-ism" (Banfield, 1957) was the rule, what now prevails is simply amoral individualism. (Italian families, of course, are smaller today, often consisting of only one person.) The hero of these every-man-for-himself Italians is Berlusconi. After 1989 the left was unable to understand, explain, and represent the crisis in Italian society. The artistic products of those who claim to be of the left remain the mirror of this incapacity.
Gianfranco Pannone has spent his life making documentary movies that picture Italy accurately, always with an eye to USA-Italy connections. His subjects include Italian immigrants in the United States in the last century, Spaghetti-Western movies shot in Italy around 1968, the exploitation of oil fields in South Italy, far-left terrorists of the 1970s interviewed as old men, and thriving neo-Fascist politicians in Latina, (formerly Littoria), a little city not far from Rome founded in 1932 in the middle of nowhere by Mussolini. For Pannone, Italians suffer from historic frustrations and defeats. "I'm not being ripped off, am I?" is the perennial question an Italian asks himself. So it's easy for him to become a swindler in order to avoid being swindled. The state that levies taxes is the bogeyman for the middle classes. A tax is always a con. The Catholic Church, ever a huge political power in Italy, has ever been nearer the rich than the poor, and shares blame for the formation of this perception of the state.
Many Italians think: "Everything is rotten in the world, so why should I be different?" Italian terrorists, murderers among them, interviewed by Pannone in The Sun of the Future ("Il sol dell'avvenire," 2008), didn't seem to repent. They expressed their opinion, recalled their past, and explained their actions with a barely hidden pride. Their lack of guilt is perfectly Italian. The minister of cultural activities, Sandro Bondi, a Communist in his youth and now enrolled by Berlusconi, has criticized Pannone's documentary. It was, he said, an advertisement for far-left terrorists. (In 2010 Bondi criticized Sabina Guzzanti's documentary Draquila, which showed how Berlusconi exploited the earthquake in L'Aquila to refurbish his public image. The title was a pun on a Dracula who drinks the blood of the people of L'Aquila.) Pannone, who made a documentary on the self-confessed "frankly Fascist" Aimone Finestra, mayor of Latina in the 1990s, has gotten used to attacks from all sides. Italy, he says, is a country that avoids facing the tragic by an intense theatricality. Italians use the emphatic mode to smother tragedy. That is the meaning of the Berlusconi phenomenon. It's a situation that the directors of fictional movies are unable to encompass.
Documentary filmmakers often manage to speak frankly, but their wares aren't popular. The makers of fictional movies censor themselves. Those who nonetheless manage to achieve something, like Matteo Garrone or Paolo Sorrentino, appear to be "roosters on top of a garbage heap," to quote a Neapolitan proverb. Their voices are strong, what they depict is troubling (criminal organizations in the South of Italy and political corruption) but, in the end, they are just a spot of color in a desolate landscape. Those of us born in the 1960s are all but silent, aphasic, and could be swept aside without loss by the next generation.
Is that to be feared or to be hoped? Italian teenagers, who are less numerous than their elders, were all born in the Berlusconi era. For the most part they have fed since childhood on his television programs. Since they are more at ease in front of a videogame than a book, will they be able to imagine that a different society is possible and to express the thought in art? Pessimists believe young Italians have already taken on their forebears' cynicism, adding the contemporary economic hard truths of joblessness, absence of workers' rights, and the end of welfare programs. As a consequence they choose to shelter in childhood as long as they can.
Screenwriter Salvatore De Mola divides Italians into two groups, the smart alecks and the watchmen. The first break the law with a will and know how to get away with it; the others are aware of the wise guys' habits and, to begin with, try to stop them. Finally they conclude that the culprits always prevail. (It sounds like a biblical lamentation, doesn't it?). The watchmen then turn cynical, give up action, and get depressed. De Mola, too, admits that no one in the last fifteen years has successfully depicted the situation. Back in the 1960s a Federico Fellini movie, a Pier Paolo Pasolini essay, or an Ennio Flaiano aphorism could show us what was going on in a formulation that's still worth remembering. Today's writers no-can-do. Or, to be more precise, they write what the Italian market asks them for, never novels that bite or movies that haunt us, but reassuring TV series in which priests outwit policemen and discover whodunit, a family wins against all its enemies, and grandfather is never wrong. They offer the audience entertainment that has little or no link at all with life. Journalists themselves, especially if they work for TV, seldom dare upset the Joker, and risk spoiling his happy mood by looking too closely at real conditions. Their fear is to say too much and be excluded from the market.
Pasolini, who was murdered in 1975, (instigator still unknown), predicted that in the near future censorship would not be wielded by the government, but directly by the market. In Italy his prediction has come true. Authors themselves banish from their pages what they think would be hard for the audience to stomach.
Salvatore De Mola might be too pessimistic. In the Italian desert there are still some green patches. Leftist playwright Dario Fo, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1997 and produced his best plays forty years ago, is one of the mightiest artistic voices raised against Berlusconi. Fo was born in 1926, so "ripeness is all." However, L'anomalo bicefalo ("The Two-headed Anomaly," 2003) was not one of his triumphs. The play tells the story of a Berlusconi who, having been beaten up, has to have half his brain replaced by a transplant. The new half comes from the Russian president who was near him at the moment of the attack. When Berlusconi recovers, his point of view on many things has changed, and he can't recall his previous life. His wife helps him to remember, providing an occasion for a satirical review of his entire political career. The play may not be epoch making, but many politicians close to Berlusconi, especially Marcello Dell'Utri, criticized it harshly because of its association of wrongdoing with the Joker.
It is hard these days to write something of value in Italy. Berlusconi or his sycophants will vilify you as a leftist or a friend of the Red Gowns (as he and his newspapers term the judges who dared put the boss on trial), or as a detractor of the mother country. That's what happened to Roberto Saviano, a young Neapolitan writer who explained in his docu-fiction book Gomorra (2006, afterwards the basis for a movie by Matteo Garrone) how the Mafia-like organization, the Camorra, had conquered Naples and made deals directly with many factory owners in the north of Italy.
Gomorra has sold millions of copies all over the world. Berlusconi, owner of Saviano's publisher, Mondadori, should be happy. But he isn't. He insists that the book runs Italy down. For the same reason he recently criticized La piovra ("The Octopus"), a TV miniseries in ten parts broadcast between 1984 and 2001. It told of the struggle of a Sicilian police commissioner, Corrado Cattani (played by Michele Placido), against the Mafia. In Berlusconi-land, the real problem isn't the great strength of criminal organizations, but those who admit openly these organizations exist. They can talk about it in hardcover books for highbrows, or in scarcely distributed documentaries, but they can't tell the harsh truth in the influential mass-media. They can't use the market. On June 29th, the Joker's pet senator, Dell'Utri, had his sentence reduced to 7 years on appeal for his collaboration with the Mafia before 1992 (his original sentence was 9 years). His friend's trials are another annoying Mafia story for the Italian prime minister, a story that he feels no one should have told.
In the meantime, teachers, doctors, university researchers, and others public servants get less money or lose their jobs. They have to go on strike. Diplomatic personnel are also furious over the cuts. Giulio Tremonti, the minister of economy, made brutal reductions in public spending. The prime minister's relations with his coalition partner Gianfranco Fini go from bad to worse. Is it the beginning of the end for Berlusconi? Are Italians ready for a change? Perhaps not quite yet. On public spending cuts, for example, Berlusconi pretends only to agree in part with Tremonti, and partly plays the role of a victim of his minister. The victim's role being the one he likes best.
That could be the secret of his incredible success. Berlusconi loves telling thoroughly corny, risqué-uncle jokes. But he's not only a comedian. He uses the more subtle and touching weapon of a baby's tears. Berlusconi always complains, grouses, whinges. He's the richest man in the country: therefore envious leftists persecute him. He and his friends are put on trial: therefore the red gowned judges are conspiring against him. Berlusconi is the victim, the scapegoat. Amongst Christians this role can pay off, as in the gory case of the crucified Jesus. In 1994 Berlusconi defined himself as "God's anointed" simply because he won an election. But it would be hard to pass him off as Jesus Christ, even with his implanted hair in place. However, we could see him as the bible's wealthy Epulon disguised in the rags of Lazarus. His complaining is a winning gambit, because Italians, complainers par excellence, rush to identify with him.
In one of his short stories, Umberto Saba speaks of a young soldier on a train at the end of WWII. He tells the other passengers the sad story of his life and loves. Saba goes on to explain the huge importance of a verse of the opera Ernani (1844) by Giuseppe Verdi: Udite or tutti del mio cor gli affanni ("All listen now to the suffering of my heart"). It's a verse Saba considers something like the Italian national motto. Berlusconi may not know this revealing story (even if Mondadori published all Saba's prose writings in 2001), but he knows perfectly how to put it to use. He's a whining infant and the nation his caring mother. The child weeps and the maternal horde delivers its vote to soothe him.
We may be wandering into psychobabble here, but the story is too interesting not to be told in full. All we need is an accomplished storyteller. Umberto Eco said a good deal in his novels, but his professorial style prevented him from reaching a mass audience. Like most Italian leftist intellectuals, he's absolutely right. It's only that his approach is wrong. The title of a recent book by Luca Ricolfi is relevant: Why We Are So Unappealing: The Left and the Complex of Being Right ("Perché siamo antipatici: La Sinistra e il complesso dei migliori," 2008). Since Italians love not only to complain but to laugh -- two sides of the same coin -- the artists who best render Berlusconi-dom may well be the stand up comedians (Antonio Albanese, Sabina and Corrado Guzzanti); Dario Fo's successors (Marco Paolini, Ascanio Celestini); comic strip authors (like Altan); the journalists who comment with a satirical spirit (the great Giorgio Bocca, now in his nineties, Gian Antonio Stella, Marco Travaglio); or even those who very ably write in favor of Berlusconi, paid by him, (Vittorio Feltri, Maurizio Belpietro, and the would-be maverick Giuliano Ferrara).
The leftist Guzzanti team of brother and sister made Italians laugh with their superb sketches of national politicians (and of the prime minister, of course) on TV, in theatres, and at the movies. Their father Paolo, who in the 1980s was a Socialist and a prominent journalist, made a U-turn in 2001, joining Berlusconi, becoming a member of parliament and an acid-slinging journalist in one of the boss's newspapers. Thus in the same Guzzanti family we find most of the political choices of the Italians, along with the ability to mock adversaries and human beings in general. In 2009, Paolo Guzzanti dared to criticize Berlusconi's foreign policy (his friendship with Vladimir Putin in particular), and abandoned the prime minister to join a small conservative party. This is a bittersweet sprig of gossip of the kind that flourishes in the Italian national garden.
For everything is terrifyingly funny here in Italy. One day someone may stop laughing and start writing the key work we are waiting for. It will take apart the Berlusconi era that weighs so heavily upon us and the inner character of the Italians who laughed it into being, or simply out of sloth let it happen. That day, the spaghetti Batman will have rid us of the weepy Joker forever.
Thanks to Chiara Santomiero, Gianfranco Pannone, Salvatore De Mola, and Peter Byrne for their cooperation.
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About the Author
Fabio De Propris is a Roman writer who has also lived in Istanbul. He has published three novels (Brenda e Plotino, Se mi chiami Amore, Nero Istanbul) and translated books from English (Markheim of R. L. Stevenson, Paradoxes and Problems of John Donne, An Anthology of William Hazlitt's Essays) and from Turkish (Two Girls of Perihan Magden, translated with Mehmet S. Bermek, The Clown and His Daughter of Halide Edip Adivar.) Fabio teaches in Rome and writes occasionally in Il Manifesto. He is presently at work on his fourth novel. His poems appear in the paintings of the group Artisti di Fortebraccio. (back)
Correction added on August 27, 2010
The World Must Know is a memoir of Michela Murgia that inspired Virzì's movie. Accordingly, the sentence should read thus: "The World Must Know ('Il mondo deve sapere,' 2006), a memoir of Michela Murgia, a university graduate who worked for some time in a call center, and Your Whole Life Ahead of You ('Tutta la vita davanti,' 2008) by Paolo Virzì, a film inspired by this memoir, are two sharp depictions of Italy today." (back)