"Italy is probably the only country in the world where celebrity/TV and political power is merged together in the person of Silvio Berlusconi," said Italian director Erik Gandini last week in Toronto. His film, "Videocracy," spotlights a cult of celebrity worship and TV junkies that, the director believes, has literally hypnotized Italian society to the detriment of public wellbeing, societal problems, and even democracy itself. The film was picked by a survey of writers by indieWIRE as the best documentary at this year's TIFF, which closed Sunday.
As prime minister (though the film refers to him as "president"), Berlusconi not only wields political power, but as the owner of the largest media empire in the country, he also is the master of cultural control. And Italians apparently are ready to eat it up, watching in droves "talent" shows that feature a liberal dose of tits and ass, and the insatiable desire for celebrity.
"This is the culture of banality," said Gandini. "The fact of the matter is, this banality, which should have been only marginal, is promoted across the country. This is huge and it's close to Berlusconi himself. Television is a mirror of his taste. Berlusconi likes women a lot, and he likes women with big breasts. It's amazing - almost like science fiction - that one man can control culture for thirty years now."
Berlusconi and his henchmen live in a world that is devoid of morality, Gandini continued to say, saying that the pursuit of fun, external beauty and frivolity is the ultimate in fine living. "I call it the TV Republic," Gandini told iW. "TV culture has penetrated the whole society." Berlusconi's empire spans movie studios, magazines and other media, but it's his three television networks and their brand of entertainment that glorify pretty demure women and cheap tricks that titillate the senses that have brought one of the world's great democracies to become a society intoxicated by glitz and flesh, according to Gandini.
"Berlusconi has created a culture of banality so that collective societal desires are no longer important. People in Italy now just want to be television stars so they can be famous and rich." Continuing he added, "There's a strong tension between those who are on TV and those who are not. For young Italians, power is embodied by those who are celebrities."
Gandini argues that Italy no longer places value in people who aspire to reason and the challenges of the modern day. Women want to be voiceless showgirls on talent shows and marry footballers (soccer players). Recent prostitution and marital scandals, which have received a fair amount of airtime in other European countries as well as America, do not get broadcast on Berlusconi's networks or the other public networks that he also controls as head of the government.
"People accept him, they find him 'natural.' It's a politics that's not based on truth or collective dreams, but on image only. Image is more important then reality."
While Gandini describes Berlusconi as a modern despot, he says that his rule is not like today's dictatorships in North Korea or even Zimbabwe, but a collective dumbing down of society that only engages in whether a footballer had an affair with someone.
"These people are super egomaniacs and they're used to being filmed and the center of attention and exposing themselves...It isn't only [Berlusconi], what I'm really interested in here is how you can destroy a democracy by tits and ass. It's shocking that the banality of culture can destroy a once mature and politically engaged populace."
Gandini approaches the subject utilizing many of the same images he criticizes, with a strong dosage of trash TV and arrogant barons doing Berlusconi's bidding in his TV empire, which has also subsequently made him the richest person in Italy.
Though Gandini is clearly disappointed by his country's political maturity, he was gratified that the film has so far performed well at home. "It was quickly the fourth biggest title in Italy in the first few days of its release," Gandini told iW. "If TV becomes this unreal window to bad values that has nothing to do with reality, then perhaps its cinema that is a safe haven for other types of stories."