The printed word is really not enough to get a sense of a person. For that, you really need to meet them, talk to them, do things with them for a while. If you can’t actually meet a person, perhaps the next best thing is to see some films about them, a complete audiovisual experience. I recently watched two films about former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose populist and spectacular but superficial brand of politics may become more and more prevalent in the coming years.
Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro (“They”) is ostensibly dedicated to the twilight years of Silvio Berlusconi. We follow an ambitious young southern Italian who wants to make it big in Rome by meeting with “Lui” (Silvio) and being made a Member of the European Parliament [sic]. He and his wife hatch a scheme: they will organize a massive party with the young and the beautiful in front of Berlusconi’s villa in Sardinia.
The first hour of the film is full of sex, nudity, and partying, almost one long music video. There is an shockingly casual, and perhaps realistic, portrayal of rape. After an hour, we finally meet Berlusconi, looking quite convincing as a ghastly botoxed mummy, played by the excellent Toni Servillo, who also starred in La Grande Bellezza. This Berlusconi is a prankster, a charming sleazebag, witty, and also quite pathetic in old age, a man so beholden to his festive and sexual appetites that he simply cannot act his age.
Loro is not an insensitive hit job. Rather, it is disappointing in another way: the film is not in fact about Berlusconi, let alone his political career, but he is used as a pretext for Sorrentino to explore his favored themes of debauchery, young females, and declining old men, with a few Christian references thrown in. Having also watched Youth and some of The Young Pope, I can say that Sorrentino is consistently strong on visuals, personalities, and dialogue, but is distinctly uninterested in plot. In the case of Loro, the film’s structure is rather disjointed and the concluding images (featuring rescue workers after an earthquake and Christian imagery) rather out of keeping with the rest of the film. (I saw the two-hour-and-thirty-minute international cut, not the three-hour director’s cut, which was released in Italian cinemas in two parts.)
This is by no means a bad film but, as a friend told me, it is rather derivative of Sorrentino’s previous work and in particular of Bellezza. Berlusconi does give an interesting speech during an argument with his wife. While his wife is frustrated with her husband’s philandering and seeks peace by hiking amid the Buddhist temples of Asia, Berlusconi tells her that he cannot abide formalism or monkish piety, and that one must follow one’s instincts and one’s passions, embracing life, even, in effect, if that leads to constant political corruption and sexual escapades. The point is noted.
As I wanted to actually learn about Berlusconi’s life and career, beyond the rather superficial and hostile news headlines of the international media, I also decided to watch My Way, a documentary about his life by the (Italian-speaking) American journalist Alan Friedman. Friedman was given unprecedented access to Berlusconi with 25 filmed interviews, given during the former prime minister’s year of community service following his conviction for tax fraud. At the beginning of the film, in heavily accented English, Berlusconi tells us that he is speaking to Friedman because: “I trust him.”
He was quite wrong to do so. Friedman wrote a book as well as making the film based on the interviews. While I cannot speak of the book, the film maintains a consistent tone of hostility and/or superficiality. Every piece of information is prefaced by Friedman’s reciting the various allegations against Berlusconi, without giving much information to assess their validity. He always begins with the media’s image of Berlusconi as a clownish fraudster, rather than from the man himself, who obviously (whatever his obvious flaws) also must have considerable qualities to have become a media mogul, billionaire, and third-longest-serving prime minister of Italy (1994-1995, 2001-2006, 2008-2011). Friedman’s narration is artless and the editing rather amateurish.
All that said, the subject’s personality cannot help shine through anyway. One understands Berlusconi’s original appeal: salesmanship on a massive scale. First as a developer and salesman in the booming 1970s Italian property market. Then by founding Italy’s first private television stations, circumventing the state ban on private national channels, by creating several local channels simultaneously airing the same shows. Apparently Berlusconi’s content was a lot more interesting to the masses than the stale government programming. (In passing, the state’s total control over national television into the 1970s gives us some sense of the bourgeois-democratic regime’s cultural and indeed authoritarian power in the years after World War Two, not counting the official legislation criminalizing Right-wing activity.)
Berlusconi, like U.S. President Donald Trump, simply has an instinct for the center-right “normie,” the actual working man and woman, whether heading a family or not, the people who own televisions, drive a car, and have a mortgage to pay. On which, see his legendary “Thank goodness for Silvio” (Menomale che Silvio c’è) ad for 2008 elections, which he won. He is not shy, a beautiful young Berlusconi sang to cruise-ship audiences in the 1960s. He is a brilliant showman. After buying the A.C. Milan football club, he arrived to watch his team’s first game in a helicopter blazing Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. Berlusconi’s success as a businessman reflects the materialism and superficiality characteristic of the postwar democratic West, his power derives from the masses’ bottomless desire for things and for spectacle.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Berlusconi in effect converted his media appeal and economic clout into political capital. My Way does give a sense of the man’s charm, brashness, and sordid sense of humor. Nonetheless, one can’t help laughing at his jokes and enjoying his company. We see him give a pep talk to his football players. Berlusconi tells a black player that he would like to meet his wife, because she is so beautiful, adding that he needn’t worry as he’s already “too old.” He tells a fifty-year-old man that he looks great, adding however that he still doesn’t look as a good as Berlusconi himself. This is funny, but Berlusconi, who was almost eighty during the interviews, does look like an awful case of plastic surgery.
Berlusconi gives us a tour of his gorgeous villa at Arcore (20 kilometers from Milan), showing his collection of Renaissance paintings, classical Greco-Roman sculpture (some given to him by Muamar Gaddafi from Libya), and a whole room of paintings of . . . himself, apparently given to him over the years by his many admirers. Among these we are shown a heroic painting of Mussolini, with Berlusconi weakly protesting that this shouldn’t be filmed, lest they give the wrong impression.
Berlusconi is a man who gets what he wants. Call it a weakness for appetite or a strength of will. In any event, Berlusconi tells Friedman that he has never ever gone to bed with his often-changing wife/girlfriend without making love to her. So much passion. After having two children with his first wife (who did not age gracefully), he moved in with and eventually married Veronica Lario. They stayed together for many years but they eventually divorced and, in keeping with the modern era of female empowerment, Berlusconi has since 2013 been required pay her $48 million per year as part of their settlement. Berlusconi’s girlfriend since 2012 is 50 years his junior and, for her service, will presumably receive an even bigger payout. Let no one say that THOT-ery does not pay!
Berlusconi’s penchant for girls was part of his undoing in another respect, namely in his notorious “Bunga Bunga” parties with nubile young women, culminating in the trial alleging that he had had sex with an underage Moroccan prostitute nicknamed “Ruby Rubacuore” (Ruby Heartstealer). In the interviews, Berlusconi explains that the term “Bunga Bunga” comes from a sex joke involving an African tribe . . . on which I will say nothing other than I was astonished to hear it because it was also popular in the high school I frequented.
My Way, while an hour and thirty-eight minutes long, does not tell you all that much about Berlusconi’s politics. Besides his changing of Italian laws so as to escape prosecution for various misdeeds, the little that is said largely speaks in his favor. He is extremely proud of having hosted a NATO summit near Rome in 2002, at which Berlusconi, U.S. President George W. Bush, and Russian President Vladimir Putin really hit it off. Berlusconi goes so far as to claim that his summit “ended the Cold War,” which is the usual hyperbolic salesman-speak, much like Trump’s perennial “tremendous.” Certainly, this marked a warming of relations between Moscow and Washington after the disagreements over the Kosovo War. On the substance, one can only welcome attempts to bring peace and good relations among Europe, America, and Russia, which have so often been needlessly in conflict.
In the interviews, Berlusconi makes the case against the Iraq War and against the Libya War. In both cases he argues, as a good realist, that you need a strong leader, in effect a dictator, to maintain order in these multiethnic countries. To bring “democracy” would mean only chaos. Berlusconi notes that Iraq is made up of three antagonistic ethno-religious groups and that Libya is made up of some 105 tribes, who had regularly declared Gaddafi “King of Kings.” Since the dictators are gone, these Arab nations have known only civil war . . . an impotence which naturally great benefits Israel, has allowed the foundation of the Islamic State, and harmed Europe by sparking massive Afro-Islamic migration. The fall of Gaddafi’s dictatorship also led the spread of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which captured Timbuktu in 2012, destroying some of that city’s ancient shrines and mausoleums, one of the few examples of indigenous Sub-Saharan African architectural heritage.
Berlusconi expresses the basic truth: multicultural societies are not compatible with democracy or, to put it more positively, with civic politics in general. There can be no solidarity without identity. Given this fact, the multiculturalists and immigrationists are digging the grave of liberal democracy, and in their ignorance and delusion, are preparing the way for new regimes. Let us hope that these will be indeed more coherent and honest forms of government.
I do not know if Berlusconi actually privately opposed the Iraq invasion in 2003. In any event, once Bush got on his way, Italy did send troops there. On Libya, Berlusconi was outmaneuvered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whom Friedman accurately describes as fomenting a war to boost his flagging approval ratings and distract from his lackluster economic performance.
We then move to the eurozone crisis in 2011. In this instance, the Great European Ponzi Scheme of malinvestment in southern European property and debt, collapsed, threatening the whole continent’s banking sector. Friedman does not give the watcher any good idea of why all this was occurring. He does explicitly show, based primarily on U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner’s testimony, that Berlusconi was taken out under pressure by Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who blamed Italy’s lack of “reforms” for the eurozone’s ills. The European Central Bank also threatened to let Italy go bankrupt unless Rome towed the line.
Berlusconi was toppled and Mario Monti, a former EU commissioner and Goldman Sachs banker, was parachuted in, on the recommendation of George Soros, no less. I for one don’t think that rule by a small, rootless, international clique tends to be very stable. Monti proved monstrously unpopular and was kicked out of office within two years. The Italians have since responded to EU diktats by electing anti-Brussels populists of various stripes.
Friedman interviewed a number of people in making his documentary. These include a (probably rightly) indignant Italian prosecutor, a colorless Italian journalist, a former Spanish prime minister, a former EU president, and even Putin himself. Not a whole lot of light comes out of all of this. Strikingly, Berlusconi emerges as if anything the most likable character among the whole motley crew of people interviewed, at that is saying something. Despite his more-or-less hostile narration, the interviewer Friedman is shown constantly being friendly and making ingratiating smiles with Berlusconi, only to dump him at the end of the film, saying “and I never saw him again” with a credit role showcasing Berlusconi and his associates’ various convictions.
On Berlusconi the talented and opportunist politician, I can add the following which was not mentioned in the documentary. He knew how to make the difficult deals to form Italy’s notoriously-unstable coalition governments, starting in 1994, with a short-lived alliance with the regionalist Lega Nord and post-fascist National Alliance (who hated each other, essentially over the Southern Question). He knew how to compaign for what the people wanted. His famous 2001 “Contract with the Italians” promised less and simpler taxes, infrastructure, more jobs, more pensions, more police, and less politicians. Of course, he rarely delivered. In 2006, constitutional reforms proposed by Berlusconi would have strengthened the prime minister and devolved more powers to Italy’s regions, but this was rejected by referendum.
The Italian journalist in the documentary points out that Berlusconi never did the “reforms” necessary to save the economy, as he did not want to upset his electorate or his coalition partners. In short, for all the kvetching, Berlusconi was too much of a democrat to get much done.
Berlusconi was however decidedly anti-leftist. He wanted to reform the constitution because it had been co-drafted by the “Soviets” (as a matter of fact, communist and Marxist parties made up about 40% of the 1946 Constituent Assembly and to this day Italy’s official emblem looks communist). When facing Romano Prodi’s left-wing coalition “the Union” in the mid-2000s, Berlusconi nicknamed it “the Soviet Union.” Unlike in France or Germany, Italy had no taboo on the center-right, including Berlusconi, making alliances with nationalist and sometimes even neofascist parties. He was born in 1936 in what was then the Kingdom of Italy, well into the second decade of Fascist government.
At a holocaust remembrance ceremony in 2013, Berlusconi argued that Mussolini’s Fascist government did many good things, all the while lamenting the alliance with the Third Reich and participation in the holocaust (specifically, the deportation of Jews, although in fact the survival rate for Italian Jews was among the highest in Europe and these deportations only began after Germany had created their own puppet government in northern Italy, nominally led by Mussolini). As a matter of fact, many figures as diverse as Ezra Pound, Charles de Gaulle, and Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi admired Italian Fascism’s political stability and ability to promote communitarian values stressing individual self-sacrifice for the common good. All this may not be understood today however.
In the end, Berlusconi achieved little politically. He maintained good relations with Russia, America, Israel, and Libya, the latter being of particular value in containing the ever-rising tied of African illegal immigration. He had excellent instincts in general. But, ultimately, he was merely an end in himself, masculinity without purpose.
With the declining influence of the mainstream media and the ability of outsiders to appeal directly to the masses through social media, we will no doubt see the rise of many more populists movements of both left and right. Happily, in Italy itself, Berlusconian populism has given way to that of Matteo Salvini, who while something an opportunist himself (like all electoral politicians, I am tempted to add), is saying and doing many of the right things on immigration and demography . . . and is getting even more popular as a result.
The opportunity here is in overthrowing an emotionally stunted and ideologically incoherent establishment, which is destroying Western civilization based on a fundamentally incorrect understanding of human nature. The risk is that we fall into mere demotism, with governments mindlessly following the fluctuations of the debased desires and prejudices of public opinion, which would certainly not be optimal either. From this, there will be more electoral demand for economically unsustainable left-wing economic policies, and for environmentally damaging right-wing policies. Neither is desirable, I do not rejoice at Trump’s blowing up of America’s hills for coal and gas or Bolsonaro’s proposals to further cut down the rain forests.
But this is what democracy means! This is the ineluctable product of the hegemonic “anti-fascism” and rejection of all authority since 1945! To those who are upset with the careers of Berlusconi, Trump, and Bolsonaro, I am tempted to quote Gladiator: “Are you not entertained!? Is this not why you are here!?”
Western men and women can no longer understand the ancient notion of justice: that justice is a right hierarchy. Obviously, there can be no hierarchy or justice among “equals,” for whom anyone’s claim to superiority is necessarily presumptuous arrogance. Westerners today are not ready to hear or understand these truths. In the natural course of events, things must necessarily get worse before human beings realize that they are doing or thinking something wrong, and correct course. This takes time. Things certainly are not bad enough yet. We are far too comfy.
In the meantime, we will see not only more Berlusconis, but many more Trumps, Bolsonaros, Orbáns, and Salvinis in the future, as well as Corbyns and Grillos.
Enjoy the ride!