A crook in shining armor

In 2009, the Italian town of L’Aquila was hit by a devastating earthquake. Though only 5.8 on the Richter scale, it ravaged the town’s Renaissance-era buildings and claimed more than 300 lives.
In the months following the disaster, the Italian press showed Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi making repeated visits in his ostensibly noble effort to rebuild the town. But all was not as it seemed.
Celebrated Italian satirist and actress Sabina Guzzanti sets out to subvert the dominant media depiction of this period in Draquila: L’Italia che trema. In this intriguing documentary, Guzzanti paints a convincing portrait of corruption and opportunism in the government’s handling of the situation.
Berlusconi, much-maligned for being ham-fisted and with a propensity for seedy sexual endeavours, appears a clown in the carnivalesque proceedings. It seems at first the image conjured in the Western press is accurate: a silly man who falls prey to his lusts who is, at worst, incompetent.
If Berlusconi lives up to his nickname, Il Cavaliere (the knight), it’s in the Quixotic rather than the Arthurian sense. Draquila shows that while this characterization is accurate, it’s incomplete: Berlusconi is seen as a dangerous man actively subverting the rule of law.
Much of the film deals with the way he has used the Protezione Civile, the government body that deals with the prevention and management of exceptional events, as a legal loophole through which to award inflated, no-bid construction contracts to his cohorts.
The wanton disregard for the law and the use of the Protezione Civile for personal gain evokes the infamous “emergency laws” of Egypt and Syria. His Italy, despite being a developed first-world country, seems to lack the rule of law inherent to democracy.
To address how Berlusconi obscures this, Guzzanti shows his use of the media storm surrounding the earthquake’s fallout to preen his public image. By stitching together the press coverage of the prime minister’s frequent visits to L’Aquila after the disaster, the film deftly criticizes the media glorification of Berlusconi. To substantiate this, interviews with everyday residents of L’Aquila show the results of the near-propaganda: misplaced devotion in Berlusconi and, ironically, a distrust in the media’s supposedly negative coverage of him.
Draquila is referred to in press releases as a satire, and this is an accurate label insofar as the film’s subjects are ridiculed. But unlike most satire, direct critique from Guzzanti is sparse.
Her presence is ubiquitous in the film, but it remains mostly detached and emotionless. She simply lets Il Cavaliere and his squires lampoon themselves with the aggregate absurdity of their words and deeds. And it succeeds brilliantly: viewers can’t help but laugh in that uncomfortable, disbelieving way they would reading about corporate manipulation or election fraud.
The film makes sure to remind viewers that tragedies underpin the story. It is framed by segments of frantic, on-the-ground footage from the actual disaster and anecdotal interviews to accompany the distressing images. This adds greatly to the film’s effectiveness: it draws you in from the start and, after an hour punctuated by the absurd humour of Berlusconi’s government, contextualizes the satire to ensure audiences don’t forget the authoritarian qualities of Italy’s current government. Most frightening among these are Berlusconi’s attempts to make action against his government illegal. He passed a law protecting himself and his ministers from legal action, and made protesting a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. These are the kinds of systematic law-subverting actions usually taken by burgeoning dictators, like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.
As much as it may be funny, Draquila is a warning best summed up by its final quote: “The great illusion [in Italy is] that what is empty and phony cannot last. That’s not true: it can last.”
Suffice to say, the chances of Berlusconi’s government lasting are much weaker with subversive films like Guzzanti’s around.


Draquila: L’Italia che trema is being presented by Cinema Politica on Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. in H-110. For more information, visit www.cinemapolitica.org/concordia.

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