At the center of Videocracy, Erik Gandini's snapshot of Italy's celebrity-obsessed popular culture, is Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi, a millionaire turned television mogul turned billionaire turned Prime Minister, is an untouchable figure who has become the revered and reviled focal point for Italy's perception of itself. (See Michael Moore's Roger & Me for a different version on a similar theme.) Berlusconi made his fortune by buying up 90% of Italy's television programming and churning out cheap programming that was high on nudity, silliness and spectacle. Over time, he has become a star-maker for young beauties hoping to score a gig as a Velisa girl (a woman who stands next to talk show hosts and inevitably winds up married to a soccer player). Gandini's critique is widened to the point of indicating a national pandemic by some fuzzy statistics on Italy's gender inequality, plastic surgery rates and general ignorance about current world events. His points are beautifully illustrated by slow-motion long shots of an open casting call for Velisa girls held in a mall where mobs of young women gyrate awkwardly in front of a jeering crowd.
The film captures dozens of salacious anecdotes and insights. But one that best encapsulates the universe depicted in Videocracy is a scene at the PM's private island villa called the Billionaire Club (where Denzel Washington, Paris Hilton and even former British Prime Minister Tony Blair have been known to party), where girls are scouted to be the President's official weather girl.
This fame domain is explored in more depth through the stories of an aspiring gameshow contestant, a Mussolini-idolizing television agent and ruthless paparazzo Parlo Corona. Corona, a handsome upstart paparazzi photographer imbued with a fairly superficial self-righteousness and hatred of the beautiful people, is a particularly fascinating and pitiful example of the toxicity of fame. He eventually becomes so successful he's absorbed into the system, becoming a de facto broker between his army of hired photographers and the wealthy people happy to pay top dollar to keep their ill behavior (none of which is disclosed in the documentary) from the public. He's eventually jailed for slander and becomes an even bigger celebrity (albeit an oddly corrosive one), going on Silvio-owned talk shows to answer Boxer/Briefs-type questions. His efforts to shine a light on the sickness in the culture are eventually dwarfed, then seduced by his own need for public validation. In his final scene we see him wearing a hidden camera to tape his own divorce proceedings when his supermodel wife leaves him and going to murder scenes to ask grieving parents if they'll wear t-shirts emblazoned with his face.
Videocracy is a bubbly addition to the recent spate of documentaries (Bhutto, Fixer, After the War: Life post-Yugoslavia) that explore how political and cultural upheaval leaves people at a loss for a sense of cohesive community. And when pessimism runs too deeply for a strong national identity to be forged, people will respond to the simpler messages of religious fundamentalism or crass commercialism. In fact, Silvio's next campaign slogan could easily be: Boobs Not Bombs!
Videocracy opens in select cities February 12th and plays at the Portland International Film Festival February 11-28th.