Billy Gray

Remorse, Italian Style

In Movie Reviews on March 2, 2010 at 2:36 pm

Making a documentary that indicts a country’s shallow, glossy, exploitative reality TV culture is risky: the movie sets itself up for failure if it holds a mirror up to its inane subject without exposing its blackheads.

Erik Gandini’s Videocracy, an expose about Italy’s government-run television (slimy president Silvio Berlusconi controls 90% of broadcast media) has more bite than the endless montages of ¾-naked women and shallow decadence shown on the Television of the President. But I left the theater feeling Gandini could have dug deeper. Videocracy paints a nasty picture that is just disturbing enough to demand a harsher condemnation.

Berlusconi is Public Television Enemy #1, but Videocracy’s focus on the branches of this gnarled tree diverts attention from the trunk. First there’s archival B&W footage of a semi-circle of sharply dressed men (this is Italy, after all), hosting a game show where a masked housewife removes an item of clothing each time a viewer gives the wrong answer to a trivia question.

Things get worse. A teeming subculture of busty, not-too-bright young Italian ladies wants to be veline—whose job it is to silently (they’re not allowed to speak) shimmy next to game show hosts while clad in skimpy bikinis. It’s the Italian version of those briefcase girls on Deal Or No Deal. Except in Italia the gig is a sought-after final destination, not a layover on the flight to a Hollywood movie cameo or catalog model career.

Fame has the same magnetic, corrosive pull in Berlusconi’s Italy as it does in the USA. We meet a Bruce Lee fanatic and lounge singer who thinks his unique (for a reason) combination of numchuck wizardry and mediocre at best crooning, when combined, will make him a national sensation.

Then there’s Lele Mora, a supremely unsettling “talent” agent and star maker. (The frozen grin plastered on his face for much of his screen time would make David Lynch—a director who has employed the creepy fixed smile to great effect–squirm.)

Grossest of all is Fabrizio Corona, a thuggish-looking lowlife, gossipmonger and Mora protégé who by movie’s end is smuggling paparazzi into fresh murder scenes—anything for a scoop.

Each of these three is creepier than the last (OK, Ricky is charming, if hopeless). But the attention Gandini pays them prevents a real muckraking look at Berlusconi (the puppeteer pulling all of these fools’ string) or the veline who are the most vulnerable of his victims in waiting.

Maybe Gandini was trying to avoid his subject’s sordidness. Glimpses of Mora’s pool flanked by a harem of Speedo-wearing musclemen imply sexual backroom trades. (Think Lou Pearlman with a better tan). And a photo of Tony Blair carousing at Berlusconi’s Sardinian manse hints that fame and power are perversely intertwined.

That dynamic—fame not for fame’s sake, but in pursuit of something even more elusive and permanent, like sway—should have dominated Videocracy.

As uncomfortably compelling as Berlusconi’s henchmen are, that the main man remains on the sidelines makes you wonder if his mandated censorship on the tube trickled down to Videocracy. Gandini at one point says that the images on the Television of the President reflect Berlusconi’s idealized lifestyle. Videocracy pokes a needle at that sham vision. It could have used a battering ram.

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