Italy under Berlusconi: The silencing of Sabina

When an Italian satirist's television show was axed under pressure from the Prime Minister, she hit back with a critically acclaimed Michael Moore-style documentary. Now it's about to go on general release. Peter Popham reports from Rome on the woman who's become the scourge of Berlusconi
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The Independent Online

Now it seems she may even be good enough to get even.

After two years away from the little screen, Italy's favourite comedienne is back on the big one - reinvented as a European Michael Moore. Her scorching debut documentary, Viva Zapatero!, had the Venice film festival on its feet cheering, and gave her the forum to tell the real story of how she was muzzled.

In every country comedians come and go. It's not a career where prospects are assured and a solid pension gleams at the far end. But Guzzanti's departure from the airwaves of state television RAI's Channel 3 in November 2003 was nothing to do with slumping popularity, sagging scripts, or public indifference.

Instead she was yanked off after a single episode of her new satirical series, RaiOt, pronounced "riot". Mediaset, the Berlusconi company that owns three of Italy's private TV channels, complained of "very grave lies and insinuations" in Guzzanti's depiction of the Prime Minister. Voicing fears of massive legal costs if it pressed on regardless, RAI chose instead to can the whole series.

Guzzanti did everybody, politicians and bigwigs of every stripe. Other impersonations which had the nation rolling around include the late porn diva Moana Pozzi. But Berlusconi was eminently fair game for a comedian like Guzzanti. After all, he is the Prime Minister. He is a very funny man, probably the funniest politician in the world occupying high office. Sometimes the humour is intentional, other times perhaps not. But he regards himself as a wit and a wag, hence his numerous public jokes, not all of which fly. When he told the German Social Democratic MEP Martin Schultz that he would be ideally cast as the "kapo" in a film about Nazi concentration camps, he was intentionally cracking a joke. He barely noticed that nobody laughed.

Tomorrow, Italians will get their first chance in two years to see their favourite comedian on a screen when Viva Zapatero! goes on general release in selected cinemas around the country. Most politicians probably dislike being satirised, but Berlusconi is perhaps the only one in Europe today who has both the will and the means to do something about it. One has to translate what happened in November 2003 to British shores to get a feeling for how weird it was. It was as if Maggie Thatcher or John Major or Tony Blair had got so maddened by a Ben Elton or a Rory Bremner sketch that they resolved to put an end to such nonsense once and for all. And then woke up the next morning and went ahead and did so - and ran that particular comic's career right off the rails.

But Sabina Guzzanti has got her own back. Her film does not merely deal with how her last fling of TV fame was prematurely butchered, but touches on lots of other things as well. There are sketches and interviews with people on the street, interaction with satirists from around Europe and interviews with the other top entertainers and journalists whom Berlusconi has defenestrated. "The clever mix," said one reviewer, is "the same combination that brought critical acclaim to [Michael] Moore's Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11". Guzzanti settles her scores and rekindles the debate on media censorship.

The reception at Venice - the only public showing of the film to date - was ecstatic, with applause bursting in every two or three minutes and a 12-minute standing ovation at the end. For the Berlusconi camp the whole fandango was nauseatingly predictable. "To play the victim, like Sabina Guzzanti," went an acid comment in the Berlusconi-owned daily Il Giornale, "is one way of making a career in entertainment. The girl ... has one undoubted quality: stubbornness ... It's enough to say, 'Berlusconi is a such-and such' and everyone puts in the pejorative adjective which pleases them best and the applause comes automatically."

Lucia Annunziata, director general of RAI when Guzzanti's show was cancelled, is attacked in the film as "the bad witch". She is philosophical about her portrayal. "[Guzzanti] thinks she was attacked by everyone," she told The Independent, "and that's one of the reasons for her success and her popularity. But she's unfair in the film: I and the head of RAI 3, the channel which commissioned the series, are the only people attacked in it, but he and I were the only people in the company who fought for it."

Annunziata later resigned in protest over Berlusconi's policies. "The sort of left that Sabina stands for," Annunziata went on, "has a very limited understanding of the complexity of the Berlusconi phenomenon ..." This stricture has some merit: attacks on Berlusconi's domination of the Italian media, and what he has done with that domination, have become practically rote by now. There is an element of automaticity to the attacks. But in comments after the Venice screening, Guzzanti denied that Berlusconi was her target.

"This is not in fact a film against Berlusconi," she said. "Among other things, I have never thought of making satire against anyone. I don't think that Berlusconi is an evil genius, I've never thought that. He's certainly not a genius and I would have thought that nobody could still be in any doubt about that.

"The real problem is of a rotten system which allows him today - but perhaps somebody else tomorrow - to do whatever they want. Viva Zapatero! is a critique of this system."

Guzzanti, is not, she insists, an aspiring rival to Berlusconi. "The key to the film," she says, "is when I say at the beginning, 'I am a clown'. I put it like this, making it clear from what point of view I am telling this story, namely of a person who makes her living doing a rather unusual type of work which consists of making satire - in other words, of saying freely what I think with the idea of making people laugh.

"At the same time it is also the story of a person who has her work and is incapable of doing anything else. I don't want to be a politician or anything else. I want to do my work, but I have been prevented from doing it. In this way I try to tell what happened in a simple and linear fashion, trying to put together what happened and what were the reasons for what happened ..."

A political career would not, if she had not explicitly ruled it out, be unthinkable: Guzzanti comes from a patrician Roman family, with an ex-minister for a great-grandfather and a senator for a father. Yet all three children of Senator Paolo Guzzanti - two daughters and a son - have ended up as comedians. Sabina was born in Rome in 1963 and graduated from the city's Academy of Dramatic Arts, but making people laugh by impersonating the great and good quickly proved to be her forte.

"She's been really popular and famous in Italy for more than 10 years," said a long-term fan. "The programmes she made with her brother Corrado, Serena Dandini and others were the only real satire on Italian television: really funny and witty, not the usual slapstick interspersed with women in a state of undress.

"She has this genius for impersonation. Her Berlusconi is fantastic but she also did Massimo D'Alema [the centre-left leader regarded as a traitor by much of the left, who became prime minister in 1998 after the downfall of Romano Prodi] brilliantly. They took the piss out of the left incredibly well."

But it was as the brilliant deflater of Berlusconi that she became most famous, and the role led to a dramatic split in the family. Her father Paolo was a journalist with the left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper, but with the launch of Berlusconi's party Forza Italia a dozen years ago he jumped ship and wound up as a senator for the new, centre-right party, and one of the media tycoon's most ingenious propagandists.

In particular, as head of the Mitrokhin Commission, scouring old KGB archives for things with which to discredit the ex-communist Italian left, he has become a regular thorn in the flesh of his old friends.

"Sabina is even more popular and famous than her father," says Denis Redmont, former head of Associated Press in Rome and a long-time fan, "despite Paolo's front-page comment pieces in the Berlusconi paper Il Giornale. It's funny, he's defending Berlusconi while she's done up in drag trashing him ... she's the body and he's the mouthpiece."

Viva Zapatero! has been widely covered (and praised, with reservations) in the leading Spanish newspapers, but in fact the only reference to the Spanish Prime Minister in the film relates to the fact that the head of Spanish public television is not, unlike his Italian counterpart, appointed by the Prime Minister. Spanish television is to that extent constitutionally more free than Italian.

Nonetheless Guzzanti intends that her film should resonate across Europe. "What fascinated me in the making of this project," she said, "was to witness live the transformation of a democracy into something else. Beyond the historical and political reasons for the change, I'm relating how the perception of events changes gradually in the eyes of the common people. The idea of interviewing colleagues who do satire abroad - France, Germany, Holland, Britain - came after some time and it was the decisive turning point in the realisation of the film.

"It was important to realise that these restrictions on the liberty of expression relate only to Italy... I thought this film might have the power to nudge our consciences a little."