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Videocracy: Berlusconi’s media empire and the declining level of Italian culture

April 27, 2011

“By living here, we feel that he is always present,
even when you can’t see him.”
(Erik Gandini, 2009.)

Erik Gandini’s Videocracy is not a documentary, but a horror movie. Its well-crafted ominous music at the beginning of the film will tell you so right away. One simple suggestion: even though horror is not your favorite genre, keep watching this movie. Next time you switch on your TV in Italy, you’ll do so more carefully, or at least more thoughtfully. Videocracy is worth watching because it is a valuable documentation of today’s television in the Mediterranean peninsula and its declining cultural level. A piece of art that tries to explain to the rest of the world what is often incomprehensible beyond Italian borders: the Berlusconi phenomenon.

Italy-born Swedish director Gandini begins his movie with the old black and white images of the first Italian quiz show, where a housewife shed her clothes every time a contestant answered a question correctly. “This was the beginning of the President’s TV and the beginning of the cultural revolution,” Gandini’s voice-over narrates at the beginning of the movie.[1] This TV show spurred the spread of commercial television in Italy, whose bigger and most successful businessman was Silvio Berlusconi.

Watch out. I said that Videocracy is not a documentary. Gandini plays it cool. He never names Berlusconi. The monster of the horror film is just referred to as “The President,” an epithet implying his power and his fame at the same time. He is so well-known that a shot of Milan-based communication tower with the Mediaset logo on top immediately connotes his persona. Italians know right away whom Gandini is talking about. However, even though he was born and raised in Italy, Gandini is aware that “from abroad, [this phenomenon] cannot be understood.” But, after all, he is Swedish and he wants to explain Berlusconi to the rest of the world. A task I always find impossible to achieve myself.

Gandini explores an original and compelling way of explaining Italy’s declining cultural level and its obsession with television, fame and power. He analyzes – almost in a psychological way – common Italian citizens like Riccardo, a young blue-collar worker who is absolutely obsessed by his desire to make it to the small screen and become famous, thanks to his strategy of being something in between Jean-Claude Van Damme and Ricky Martin. Gandini finds access to the wealthy, kitsch villas of some of the most powerful TV stars, such as Lele Mora and Fabrizio Corona. Through their words and their seemingly unconscious actions in front of the camera, Gandini can excavate the paradoxes and immoralities of Italian television, the most powerful medium in the Mediterranean peninsula.

Even though Berlusconi controls 90% of Italian TV (his three commercial channels and the three RAI channels since he is in government), Gandini says this is not what makes him so powerful. “In order to understand, one must look inside the heart of his TV studios,” the director states. Gandini then interviews Fabio, the man behind the Canal 5 show The Big Brother. Fabio decides which scenes millions of viewers will watch from home, which video cameras will broadcast the moving shots of the ten people living inside the Big Brother’s house. According to Fabio, Berlusconi’s TV channels reflect his mind: women with big breasts, lights, and colors. In short, a world that doesn’t resemble reality, like his personal spot “Thank God Silvio exists” clearly shows.

In the spot – shown also by Gandini in his film – young and older women, housewives, mothers, hairdressers, and swimming teachers alike, sing a song praising Silvio Berlusconi. The refrain “Thank God Silvio exists” is meant to be sung all together – as hundreds of women standing in front of Mussolini’s squared coliseum do in the video. “Having a super-powerful personality works well in a country which is dominated by television,” Gandini says while moving from Riccardo to Fabrizio Corona, an unscrupulous man who blackmails celebrities after sending his camera-equipped paparazzi after them.

Thanks to television and to the fame-driven malady affecting Italy, Corona became a star. Made famous by TV agent Lele Mora, one of Berlusconi’s closest friends, Corona was imprisoned for extortion and spent 80 days in jail. But this fact improved his public image and Corona became “a symbol,” as he defines himself: “a modern Robin Hood who steals from the rich to give to himself.” Gandini shows young people standing in line to take a picture with him, the new celebrity who receives 10,000 euro to attend one night in a disco. The new star who, against the drumming techno music in the background, shouts out loud in the mike: “The important thing is to gain power and mind your own fucking business!”

Beyond the immoral figure of Corona, Gandini shows an even more worrisome image of Italians, many of whom are ready to step over their own integrity in order to become famous and appear on TV. In front of his camera, an old, flabby woman strips her clothes off while dancing and singing. Young, skinny adolescents in skimpy dresses are auditioned to become the next velina, a pole-dancing and silent showgirl who appears next to anchormen in the satirical Canale 5 show Striscia La Notizia. Becoming a velina is the first step to enter Berlusconi’s television empire and become famous. Therefore, dozens of young girls show off in front of the camera, showcasing their tattoos and turning sideways to prove how thin they are.

“Television and power are the same thing,” Gandini voice-overs. And this truth resonates in today’s Italy over and over. The power that Berlusconi acquired through his media empire – not only in television, but also through his newspapers and magazines – made him the most influential person in the Italian political and cultural scene. Not only did he become Prime Minister, he was also able to influence the mindsets of Italians through 30 years of a commercial television monopoly. As I wrote in my book review “The Rise of Infotainment,” TV is the most popular medium in Italy, and this is due to the fact that it reached a much wider audience compared to newspapers in post-war, illiterate Italy.[2] Today’s Italian culture results from the convergence of this wide TV influence and Berlusconi’s power. Italy’s current Prime Minister, a former cabaret showman on cruise ships, mingled together politics and entertainment.

In the book Videocracy: Come Tutto È Cominciato, Gandini writes that he didn’t make a film about Berlusconi, but rather a film about “a part of Italy that created a TV system that enveloped and dominated the other half of the country.”[3] However, his movie is extremely political. Videocracy represents a merciless reportage on 21st-century Italians, who are television watchers rather than citizens. Gandini shows one side of the country whose mind and will have been desensitized by the glittering sets of TV shows and the scanty, sequin bikini of silent showgirls. This is the segment of Italians who keeps voting for Berlusconi despite everything he has done and not done to solve the economic crisis. This is the segment of Italians who often uses TV as its only source of information, the segment of Italians who doesn’t read newspapers and doesn’t rebel against the fact that the Prime Minister controls 90% of the Italian TV system.

In case you are still wondering whether or not you would be interested in watching a movie which certainly is not light-hearted, just think that by buying or renting Videocracy you would contribute towards going against this sick and sickening system that is destroying Italy. In August 2009, in fact, before its release, the trailer of Videocracy was banned by both Mediaset and state-owned broadcast RAI. Mediaset did so because the film is against commercial television and against Berlusconi. RAI refused to air the trailer because the film – RAI said in a letter to Gandini – is against pluralism.[4] As a victim of censorship in 21st-century Italy, a Western country unique in its genre, Gandini is a witness of what such a distorted and power-driven TV system can do to a country’s population. Videocracy is a piece of history. In thirty or forty years, it will be shown alongside the old, black and white documentaries of the LUCE film institute recording Mussolini’s speeches in Piazza Venezia and a crowd of enthusiastic Italian supporters who waved Italian flags in a period of shame, not of honor.

[1] Videocracy, dir. Erik Gandini, DVD, Fandango, 2009.

[2] Felice Froio, L’Informazione Spettacolo: Giornali e Giornalisti Oggi, (Roma: Editori Riuniti, 2000) 214.

[3] Antonio Scurati, Daniele Vicari et al. Ed. Andrea Salerno, Videocracy. Come Tutto È Cominciato (Roma: Fandango Libri, 2009) 81.

[4] Antonio Scurati, Daniele Vicari et al. 85.

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