In power and off-limits

October 23, 2008

By Guy Dinmore Published: October 23 2008

The prime minister is an ageing billionaire dandy proud of his plastic surgery, while the minister of equal opportunities is a former topless model; Italian politics should be ripe for satirical treatment on TV.

Except that it isn’t. Satirists do exist in Italy, brilliantly pursuing a genre that boasts a rich national history, but they are mostly excluded from the airwaves and left to strut their stuff elsewhere – in film, theatre, blogs and on YouTube.

It is no secret that Silvio Berlusconi, who wears two hats – as centre-right prime minister and media baron who controls a number of TV channels and production companies – has directly intervened to put down the parodies. Less aired are accusations by the comics that the church and leftwing parties are also complicit in feeding Italians a controlled television diet.

Sabina Guzzanti performs during 'Rockpolitik' Rai TV show, in Brugherio, near Milan, Italy, Thursday, Nov.10, 2005. “Little by little this country is changing from a democracy into an authoritarian regime,” says Sabina Guzzanti (pictured), who is famous for her devastating impersonations of Berlusconi and for her ejection from Rai, the state broadcaster, in 2003 after just one episode of her Raiot review.

“Satire is just not possible on television,” she says, speaking before a rehearsal of her play Vilipendio . “Now on television you can do imitations and make jokes, but you cannot, through the character, say something true.”

Explaining that she is “disgusted” with impersonating Berlusconi, the 45-year-old Guzzanti will lampoon the people around him in Vilipiendo, basing her play on the corruption trial of the prime minister and his UK tax lawyer David Mills. Berlusconi is currently off the hook thanks to an immunity law passed by his own government, but the case against Mills continues. Both deny the charges.

In August Guzzanti was speaking at an oppopsition rally in Rome’s Piazza Navona when she took aim at Pope Benedict and Giorgio Napolitano, Italy’s president. Broadsides followed from all directions. The government initially threatened lawsuits but backed off, attempting to portray itself as magnanimous, although Guzzanti argues that they had no legal basis for a prosecution. Five years ago she was sued by Berlusconi’s business empire for €20m. The case was dismissed.

Guzzanti may soon be in the courts again, defending a €1m ($1.3m) suit by Mara Carfagna, a law graduate and former model who is currently minister of equal opportunities. Carfagna objected to Guzzanti’s allegation at the same rally that she owed her rapid promotion to granting the 72-year-old prime minister sexual favours.

For her, Berlusconi is “a wild billionaire, an ignorant man with some talent for money with no principles”. And when it comes to the left and the church, her serene, fabulously mobile features harden. “The left is not just weak, it is corrupt,” she says.

Guzzanti is not alone among a public that is disenchanted with its politicians and believes that the left enjoys and fosters the status quo. They could have challenged Berlusconi’s conflict of interests over his control of the media but chose not to.

As for the Catholic establishment, she says they used to be more enlightened, tolerating the satire of Dario Fo, Italy’s greatest exponent of the genre and a Nobel laureate. But now she says Opus Dei and more “reactionary” elements are the dominant currents. With churches empty and in financial crisis, she says they want to “occupy television as much as possible”, and that the Pope interferes directly in Italian politics.

While Italy’s most prominent satirists are kept off television, a few shows do pull in large audiences. Serena Dandini’s late-night Speak With Me on Rai’s third, left-controlled channel is the most popular offering these days, aiming to be the “Robin Hood” of television. Maurizio Crozza, known for upsetting the Vatican by lampooning the Pope, is seen on Telecom Italia’s La7 channel. Berlusconi’s Mediaset has Le Iene (The Hyenas).

Daniele Luttazzi, one of three journalists ejected from Rai in 2002 after public denunciation by Berlusconi and later La7, says true satire is defined by the reaction it provokes. It is a bad sign for the media to speak well of a satirical programme, he says.

The system’s response to those it wants to censor, he claims, is simply to deny access, and the expansion of digital television promises no change. Luttazzi recounts how Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Italia approached him about presenting a programme on a channel dedicated to comedy.

“I offered them a satirical news programme, explaining that I would comment on news, for example paedophilia in the churches,” he recalls. “Murdoch’s channel asked me how I would react if they cut some of my lines. I made it clear that the precondition for satire is absolute freedom and that censoring lines is censoring opinions. They gave up.”

Sky Italia denies it was a question of censorship that led to no agreement being reached. Luttazzi, however, says Italy is driven by the “logic of the clans”. “Whoever is outside the pack is taken out of the way. People might get a taste of freedom. Democracy is a danger, eh?”

Beppe Grillo, Italy’s most politically active comic, has homed in on financial scandals; he is off the airwaves but active in the streets and on his blog. He finds himself fighting not only corrupt politicians but also the passivity of the Italians. “Nothing will budge these people,” he writes in a recent blog. “To be governed by delinquents and the incompetent has not troubled their consciences for some time. Italians are sleeping beauties.”

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