Swans Commentary » swans.com April 11, 2011  



Berlusconi's Reality Show Goes Sour Off Screen


by Fabio De Propris







(Swans - April 11, 2011)   This is a little story about media power. Everybody knows how overwhelming it is, but delving into how it works is more than interesting, it's vital. In a Fascist country, you only have to sit staring in front of a screen, nodding or shaking your head. In a democracy, every citizen should know how media proceeds to score its points. My story is set in Italy where Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi fully controls three national TV channels even though his son, Piersilvio, stands in for him as proprietor. Rete 4, Canale 5, and Italia 1 literally shape Italian public opinion. These channels provide information and news.

But Berlusconi doesn't only rely on TV news to persuade the Italians to vote for him. He may be bumptious, but he's also shrewd. He knows his countrymen have little confidence in newspapers and books. They see as gullible anyone who believes what's written down. Journalism, laws, and philosophy are simply high-flown, sonorous deceit. The world beyond the family circle (and even some in-laws can't be trusted) is one big lie.

In a couple of articles that Swans Commentary published last summer on Berlusconi's Italy (see here and here), I tried to explain how history contributed to this mindset. Print-phobic Italians of all ages acquire their world view from watching TV happy-time programs. Bright adolescents right up to wise greybeards and "O-My-God!" grandmas lap up this lumpy pablum. They love to laugh and to shake their heads observing people like themselves, but preferably slower witted, singing, arguing or shedding tears in a "reality show." Berlusconi's TV channels (and state television too) offer a constant supply of these emotion-drooling shout-fests.

The story I want to tell concerns a show called "Forum." The format of "Forum" is to mimic a case of civil law litigation. Two angry litigants argue about a fact of everyday life in front of a judge who in the end renders a decision. In the March 25th episode, Marina Villa, 50, took center stage. She was from L'Aquila, a city devastated by an earthquake in April 2009. Now separating from her husband, Gualtiero, (a sad presence on the other side of the ring), she wants 25,000 Euros from him in order to reopen her wedding-gown store. Two years have passed since the earthquake and Marina insists that L'Aquila, thanks to Prime Minister Berlusconi, has fully recovered. The wrecked houses have been rebuilt, people have returned to work and the sun is shining bright. Marina, however, can't reopen her store if Gualtiero doesn't dig into his pocket.

That's the story. Why linger over it? Because it's false. Everything in it is fake. Mrs. Villa is not from L'Aquila, never owned any wedding-gown shop, isn't married to Gualtiero and, furthermore, -- what really matters -- L'Aquila has not been reconstructed. Two years ago Berlusconi tried to exploit its misfortunes and present himself as its savior, but his plan went awry as rebuilding faltered. The authors of "Forum" wrote a story about a L'Aquila woman, a story in which Berlusconi appears unctuously benevolent in the role of a can-do genius. Mrs. Villa was hired to act in the skit. She is simply a TV fan who having watched and watched, jumped at the chance to spend a day on the inside, frolicking in the playground Berlusconi has set up for adults.

It isn't hard to get into the "Forum" act. You just have to make a phone call, or apply through the Internet. You can even put forward your grievance. But seasoned, savvy professionals on the billionaire's payroll write the cases actually presented on the show. In "Forum," as in all Berlusconi TV programs, reality is prettied-up, not unlike the prime minister's painted-on hair. Colors are brighter, the air is perfumed, and existence is one long advertisement.

"Forum's" 26th season is now under way. Monday through Friday from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm on Canale 5 and from 1:30 until 3:00 pm on Rete 4. Aldo Grasso, the eminent Italian TV critic and historian, has pointed out that "Forum" is simply a "reality show." The litigations may be inspired by real cases, but the litigants are actors, plain people who take the role of other, different, plain people. Berlusconi's fans, however, don't mind in the least. They delight in the TV brand of reality. If you ask them whether they know "Forum" is all bogus and staged, they may say they do. But their "yes" means "yes, and I love it, because it's 100% pure Berlusconi, while reality is a dismal creation of some leftist naysayer."

Hubert Selby, Jr. created a character in his novel Requiem for a Dream (1978) much like Mrs. Marina Villa. Sara Goldfarb, a fat woman, dreams of thinning down and taking part in a TV show where she will be gorgeous in her red dress. In the novel, she rages because despite her efforts she can't reach her goal and have her dream come true. Novelists are moralists, life as lived is strict realism full of ironies that we often overlook. Mrs. Villa, thirty some years later, in another part of the world, has a firm grip on her nerves. She enjoyed being an actor in "Forum" and telling the cameras what the authors asked her to say, earning 300 Euros into the bargain. Her personal dream came true. She was part of the big picture on the small screen.

In these times of the Japanese earthquake, the North African uprisings, the Libyan civil war, the Haitian disaster, the global economic recession -- all events that come across muted on our TV -- I have a dream too: That all and everyone in the world understand the mechanism of the media, their grammar, their syntax, and stop believing screens never lie while written words are meant to deceive us. I dream that I shall no longer hear the billionaire's fans repeat: "I know, it's just a TV show on a Berlusconi channel. But in the end, the persons I see on the screen are real, aren't they?"


(Thanks to Peter Byrne for his help with this article.)


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About the Author

Fabio De Propris is a Roman writer who has also lived in Istanbul. He has published three novels (Brenda e Plotino, Se mi chiami Amore, Nero Istanbul) and translated books from English (Markheim of R. L. Stevenson, Paradoxes and Problems of John Donne, An Anthology of William Hazlitt's Essays) and from Turkish (Two Girls of Perihan Magden, translated with Mehmet S. Bermek, The Clown and His Daughter of Halide Edip Adivar.) Fabio teaches in Rome and writes occasionally in Il Manifesto. He is presently at work on his fourth novel. His poems appear in the paintings of the group Artisti di Fortebraccio.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published April 11, 2011