It’s almost impossible for non-Italians to understand the irresistible rise of Silvio Berlusconi. The tendency is often to write him off with the usual Mediterranean stereotypes or see him as a grotesque figure of fun – Charlie Brooker’s assessment, “an ejaculating penis with an Italian Prime Minister attached”, is perhaps the best yet. But aside from the sex scandals and ‘bunga-bunga’ parties, there’s the story of an important European country, the third largest economy in the Eurozone, which has been dominated and almost fatally damaged for the last twenty years by an unscrupulous and corrupt oligarch and media tycoon.
How can this be? And why do Italians keep voting for him when word of his various scandals has rendered Italy the laughing stock of Europe? Italian journalist-turned-director Annalisa Piras and former Economist editor Bill Emmott embark on this herculean task with documentary Girlfriend in a Coma (2012), a more-in-sorrow-than-anger denunciation of Berlusconi and Italy’s dark heart. Emmott describes himself as a lover of the Bel Paese, but is increasingly disenchanted with its current plight. As an editor, he also found himself on the sharp end of some legal battles after publishing cover stories with headlines such as ‘Why Silvio Berlusconi is Unfit to Govern Italy’ and ‘The Man who Screwed an Entire Country’.
Emmott puzzles over just how Berlusconi has managed to maintain his power, and the failings of a political class unable to contain him. Accompanied by an increasingly disconsolate Dante (voiced by Star Trek in Darkness’ Benedict Cumberbatch) and with occasional animated sequences, Emmott wanders around beautiful locations while observers, key protagonists and experts such as Roberto Saviano (the author of Gomorrah and now under 24-hour police protection), leader of the Slow Food movement Carlo Petrini, novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco and recent Prime Minister Mario Monti try to make sense of a country which has consistently elected its own number one vandal.
Piece by piece, Emmott anatomises the myriad problems Italy faces, from organised crime to the role of women – viciously objectified by the Berlusconi-controlled media and oppressed by the massive retrogressive pull of the Vatican. Even the country itself is physically suffering as irreparable environmental damage is wreaked and the young generation seeks in every way possible to leave the sinking ship. Yet, Piras and Emmott’s film is victim to its own topicality. Some of the talking heads, such as Monti and Minister for Work Elsa Fonero, have had a year in power and have performed badly, effectively opening the door for Berlusconi’s imminent return to power.
This perhaps can’t be helped, but Emmott’s own decision to put himself front and centre of the documentary adds very little, offering no real charisma as he potters about with the country’s elite. This tone-deafness is typified by the film’s creepy, Smiths-inspired metaphor: Girlfriend in a Coma. Given the accusations of misogyny, it seems at once patronising to both Italy and, specifically, the Italian women it champions in another section. That said, anyone wishing a primer on exactly why Italy is in the mess it is in will find this a decent, if unremarkable, place to start.
John Bleasdale (Venice correspondent)