Ciao, Berlusconi: The End of “Videocracy” in Italy

Those not familiar with the government of Italian billionaire Silvio Berlusconi can refer to a description by critical theorist Slavoj Zizek: “Imagine something like the Joker from Batman in power.” Through years of controversial behavior in Italy’s top spot, from economic malfeasance to sexual misconduct, the playboy Prime Minister has hung on.

Until now, Berlusconi, whose net worth is reportedly $6.2 billion, has sustained his popularity through a national media empire under his thumb that frames the news in his direction (he reportedly controls as much as 90% of the Italian media). Berlusconi’s media kingdom is an entertainment-dominated state soaked in sex appeal and lowbrow glitz, leaving a nation in a perpetual state of distraction, dreaming of TV pop idols and reality show stars. At least that’s the argument laid by Videocracy, an insider documentary that portrays Italy as a nation hypnotized by an empty culture Berlusconi helped create. (Watch Videocracy on Fandor.)

In the film, Berlusconi comes off as a slick, savvy mogul who knows how to dazzle the people better than anyone, thanks to his off-the-cuff and occasionally offensive “tell it like it is” persona. But after three terms in office spanning 18 years on and off, he may finally be relinquishing his grip on the reigns of power.  Italy’s financial crisis has elicited from him a vow to resign so long as austerity measures are passed by Italy’s Parliament to avoid a national financial collapse.

As Berlusconi prepares to step down (or will he?), it’s worth reviewing the highlights (or lowlights) of his long, controversial career as Italy’s leader. Looking at everything he’s survived at this point, one wonders if this really is his last act, or just another shrewd maneuver to stay in the game.

1994 – Capitalizing on anti-corruption sentiment against the ruling government, Berlusconi forms his own party and three months later wins his first term as prime minister. But he lasts only seven months as tax fraud charges force him out of office.

2001 – The first comeback: on national television, Berlusconi signs a “contract” promising to create jobs and lower taxes. It’s a moment of political theater that demonstrates the media mogul’s uncommon ability to charm the electorate.

2002 – During a press conference in Bulgaria, Berlusconi lashes out against Italian state television hosts who have criticized him, calling it a misuse of publicly funded media. Shortly after, RAI, the Italian national network, fires three popular TV hosts who have criticized Berlusconi on air. It remains one of the most prominent displays of Berlusconi’s power over Italian media.

2006 – Loses re-election to leftist coalition led by Romano Prodi. After collapsing while giving a speech, has heart surgery to install a pacemaker. Also has hair transplant and cosmetic surgery.

2008 – The second comeback: after Prodi’s administration collapses, Berlusconi sweeps back into office, winning his third non-consecutive term as Prime Minister.

2009 – Controversy erupts as Berlusconi promotes young, attractive models and Italian reality TV stars to represent Italy in the European Parliament. Allegations of a relationship with an 18-year-old girl lead to a series of other allegations of sexual misconduct involving other women, including prostitutes. Berlusconi’s second wife of nearly 20 years files for divorce.

2010 – As Europe’s economic crisis worsens, Berlusconi’s handling of Italy’s debt (exceeding its economic output by 150%) draws criticism, leading to three votes of confidence on Berlsconi’s leadership in one year, each of which he survives.

2011 – More allegations of sexual misconduct, this time with a 17 year-old dancer nicknamed Ruby Heartstealer, as well as allegations of paying women to attend “bunga bunga” sex parties in Berlusconi’s home. Any one of these charges would normally derail the career of a politician in the U.S. Remarkably, it is not his many sexual imbroglios but the Italian financial crisis that is poised to bring Berlusconi’s colorful career to an end.


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