Italian TV Politics: Censorship and Silliness

To be perfectly honest, I don’t understand much of what goes on in Italian politics, and try to ignore what I do understand, as simply too squalid to bear thinking about. Elections are coming up, and I don’t even know what to hope for. It’s probably a blessing that I don’t have to vote here as well as in the US: doubling the number of “lesser of evils” choices I have to make would lead to ulcers.

Italy’s in all kinds of messes, which none of its politicians, right or left, seem likely to resolve. The current rightish government, headed by Silvio Berlusconi’s “Forza Italia” party, was elected partly thanks to Berlusconi’s control of the media (Italy ranks 39th in the world in freedom of the press). He made lots of Bushian promises, especially about tax cuts and labor market reforms. The tax cuts were small and mostly benefited the rich; the Italian government, mired in debt and unable to collect all the taxes it’s owed, simply can’t afford deep cuts. A few tentative labor reforms have been made, introducing flexibility into the labor market, but unemployment is still huge, especially in Italy’s poor south, and the new jobs created are largely underpaid and insecure.

Berlusconi’s major legislative accomplishments have been in laws in which he has a direct, personal interest: those about bribing judges and tax officials, and corporate accounting fraud. Adroit changes in the statutes of limitations have kept Berlusconi himself, and some of his closest cronies, out of jail. (When elected, Berlusconi was under several indictments, a fact which did not endear him to his colleagues in European leadership, although the Italian electorate was obviously willing to overlook it.)

Berlusconi, through his company Mediaset, personally owns Italy’s three major non-state TV channels (he promised, if elected, to resolve his conflicts of interest by divesting, but this never happened). The three tax-supported state channels (RAI 1, 2, and 3) were traditionally parceled out among the three major political parties (Christian Democrats, Socialists, and Communists), but that system of patronage fell apart when the parties did (ten years ago, as a result of the “Clean Hands” corruption investigations). So now RAI is in the hands of whoever’s running the government – currently, Berlusconi. Can we spell “media monopoly”? How about “censorship”?

Yes, censorship. Berlusconi is using his media clout to ensure that people who make unkind remarks about him – even in jest – lose their jobs in television. In 2003, two of Italy’s most respected commentators, Enzo Biagi and Michele Santoro, were driven off the air (Santoro hosted a talk show), along with a harmless comedian named Lutazzi.

Two years later, an unlikely hero comes riding to the rescue of Italian freedom of speech: Adriano Celentano, an ageing rock star popularly known as il molleggiato (Mr. Springy) for the energy of his dancing (when young – there’s a sample in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”). RAI signed him to do a variety show called “Rockpolitik” – you can guess where that was headed.

A good deal of drama surrounded the preparations for the show, with del Noce, the head of RAI, trying to clamp down on the eccentric (but undoubtedly crowd-drawing) star, and Celentano noisily and successfully resisting any hint of control.

I had scarcely watched Italian television in years – lack of competition has made it even more wincingly awful than it used to be – but I ended up seeing the grand opening of Celentano’s extravaganza, because called that evening and asked if I would participate (via webcam) in an Internet transmission commentating on the show. I figured I should see how this worked, both the technology and the format.

So I hauled my laptop and webcam down to the family room and watched the show, with my mother-in-law, so now you have the benefit of my reactions. ( never called, so they missed out on my pearls of wisdom!)

The producers spared no expense. The set was a huge, beautiful mishmash of the Brooklyn bridge and Manhattan skyline with bits of China thrown in. There was a 30-piece (at least) band, and countless singers and dancers. Of course the show opened with a song, I don’t remember much about it now, but liked it at the time, and thought “Celentano’s voice has held up pretty well.” Admittedly, it was a semi-rap style song without much melody, not difficult for any voice to handle. But I found out later that he’d played it safe by lip-synching.

Then Celentano did a long monologue listing items which he considered “rock” (cool) or “lento” (slow, as in music, and therefore uncool) – wired vs. tired, in American parlance. I didn’t understand many of the references, nor did I see the point. I read later that one of the “lento” items was a dig at del Noce, who had threatened to resign if Celentano didn’t behave himself: “Seriously threatening to resign is rock, just pretending to is lento.” (In the event, del Noce hasn’t resigned.)

Then we had French actor Gerard Depardieu reading a poem about the barbarians at the gates, in atrociously-accented Italian. After which he and Celentano stumbled through a conversation in which Depardieu apparently said that he himself was the barbarian. Well, he did play Obelix the Gaul in a couple of movies…

Arrived the much-anticipated moment in which Michele Santoro appeared and said dramatically: “I want my microphone back.” After his exile from Italian TV, he had been elected to the European parliament, a position which he had just resigned, with much fanfare, in order to return and be a guest on this show. Presumably he expects a new show of his own to follow. (His arrival was preceded by photos and quotes from Biagi and others, explaining why they wouldn’t be on Celentano’s show. One journalist wrote to say: “With events like this, we risk simply confusing the middle-class voter,” and, by the end of the evening, I agreed with her.)

An hour into the show, my nerves were sorely tried. I called Alessia at, begging to be allowed to go watch “Lost” on DVD with my family instead. “Oh, no, you must stay – we need an alternate viewpoint. Everyone here loves the show.” I gritted my teeth and hung on, but it just got worse. Celentano’s monologues wandered here and there, interspersed with singing. He did a nice job on “Be Bop a Lula” (lip-synched or not, I don’t know) with three dancers around him – to the right were two black women, to the left one white blonde. To my eye, the black women were more beautiful, but the blonde got all the close-ups.

Celentano said: “We have to search for something we have lost, I think we’ll find it in our past.” He wandered around the stage asking people: “What was the most beautiful period of your life?” The band conductor said: “Adolescence.” Santoro said: “Childhood, when I still had my mother.” Far be it from me to make fun of Sig. Santoro if he lost his mother tragically early, but my reaction to this was: “Piu’ Italiano di cosi’!” (“How Italian can you get!”)

This was followed by another long monologue/rant in which Celentano mourned lost icons of his own youth including shops with things in the windows. Huh? Either my Italian comprehension was not firing on all cylinders (I was tired), or he wasn’t doing a good job of describing exactly what he was reminiscing about – by this time he was clearly tired, too.

Somewhere along the way he sang a song that many Italians are nostalgic about (I like it, too), Azzurro. Which gave us all reason to weep – for the lost voice of his youth.

The brightest spot of the evening was a Genovese comic doing a song “Zapatero” (to the tune of the Gypsy Kings’ “Bamboleia”), mourning the fact that the Italian left doesn’t have anyone as charismatic as Spain’s Zapatero.

You may wonder why I should get so exercised about what was, in the end, just another extravagantly silly Italian variety show. Well, it irritates me that Celentano had fought for and won an opportunity to speak out on Italian television in a way that few others could get away with under the Berlusconi regime – and wasted much of it in what Italians call seghe mentali (mental masturbation). He had a unique chance to make a strong statement, but he drowned his own (very worthy) messages in fluff and waffle.

This being the case, Berlusconi & Co. could have sat quiet and let the whole thing dribble away. Instead, they made an unholy fuss, with Berlusconi muttering about “lists” of people he didn’t approve of. I’m surprised that the heads of such an effective political and media empire should be so clueless about PR. The ranting simply ensured an even larger audience for the next show (which I was sorry I missed – Roberto Benigni was a guest). Another two or three shows, then the whole thing was over. Now we’re into election season, and there’s some chance that Berlusconi & Co. will lose. Did Celentano have much to do with this? Hard to say, but it’s possible that the hopes and aspirations for his show weren’t wholly wasted.

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