George Clooney has entertained plenty of Italians over the years with his films and his high-profile holidaying at Lake Como. Yesterday Italy returned the favour by inviting the actor to a courtroom comedy of its own.
The star of the Ocean's films and ER was called as a witness in a multimillion-pound fraud case in Milan. The alleged crimes are unremarkable: three people are said to have created a clothing label using the star's name and then conned suppliers into thinking it had his endorsement. It's surprising that fraudsters in celebrity-obsessed Italy don't run such scams more often.
But there are celebrities and there are celebrities. And in a country where coming third in Big Brother guarantees you free drinks for life, the presence of genuine Hollywood aristocracy generated a predictably hysterical reaction.
Female fans crammed into the tiny courtroom deep in the bowels of Milan's labyrinthine court complex. On a brutally hot day, the air-conditioning was no match for 150 hyperventilating autograph-hunters, with mobile-phone cameras at the ready.
When Clooney finally entered, looking tanned and immaculate in a dark blue suit, there were gasps, followed by muffled cries. Three young women at the back of the room began pogoing in excitement.
In the press box I suggested to one female reporter that he looked smaller in real life than in films.
"Oh, I don't know... Anyway, he does look good, though," she purred. Ahead of the hearing, the judge, Pietro Caccialanza, who presided over the trial of David Mills – the British lawyer convicted of accepting a $600,000 bribe from Silvio Berlusconi – predicted that the "public gallery will be busier than usual".
In fact there was so much noise that nobody could hear anybody speak. Only at the fourth attempt, having threatened to throw everyone out of the room, did the judge temporarily gain control.
Every so often he ordered the ejection of someone for sneaking a photo on their mobile phone. His requests that fans vacate benches for some of the defence team were ignored completely.
Judge Caccialanza was gruff with everyone, except with Clooney, whom he addressed with a vaguely unctuous smile. And so Il Divo took the stand – or in this case a small table just three feet from hacks squashed into a Mafia-style court cage – along with his star-struck translator. Presented with a series of badly Photoshopped pictures, with him in, the actor said "false", at least 23 times.
His bemusement turned to exasperation when presented with a bogus photo of himself partying with Joan Collins. "I don't know how... What is that about?" he said.
Shown another photo of himself side by side with one of the alleged fraudsters Clooney said he had never seen the man in his life. Then he added: "But I can see him now, he's right there," pointing at one of the defendants, Vincenzo Cannalire. "It's the first time we've met and I'd like to say 'Hello'," he said looking the accused straight in the eye, smiling.
The poor man bore a confused expression. Most Italians could dine out for years on a spontaneous greeting from George Clooney. But there's a chance he'll be telling the tale in prison.
As the evidence – bogus letters involving Clooney's sponsor Rolex, faked signatures, or exactly the same ones photocopied hundreds of times over – piled up, Clooney the actor started to enjoy himself.
"It's pretty easy to get my signature off the internet. But if you're going to borrow it, you think that you would have taken several different versions instead of just one," he said laughing.
One of the desperate-looking public defenders wiped the grin off Clooney's face though, by asking if, after spending two months a year in Italy for the last nine years, he had any spoken or written Italian.
"Eh, what'd he say?" muttered Clooney, inadvertently answering the question. When it was translated, he replied: "No, err, scusa."
Judge Caccialanza nodded obsequiously at Clooney. There were polite titters all around. The case was adjourned. And the actor returned to his opulent summer bolthole on the shores of Lake Como.
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