Sabina Guzzanti: Her Hit Television Show Was Largely Devoted to Lampooning Silvio Berlusconi, and as a Result It Was Forced off the Air. Now Italy's Answer to Rory Bremner Has Made a Movie Exposing the Scandal
Gilbey, Ryan, New Statesman (1996)
Admirers of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero may emerge from the cinema bewildered after seeing Viva Zapatero! This new documentary film by the Italian satirist Sabina Guzzanti has nothing very much to do with the Spanish prime minister. He earned his place in the title, though, by abolishing laws in his country that allowed him to appoint television executives. Guzzanti, along with other performers and journalists who have been censored or sacked under the reign of Silvio Berlusconi's Mediaset empire, must find themselves gazing in the direction of Spain with envy and admiration.
Berlusconi is not renowned for tolerating even the faintest whiff of ridicule. And given that the 42-year-old Guzzanti spends a large part of her professional life painstakingly applying latex, make-up, wigs and padding in order to pass herself off as Berlusconi, she was unlikely to displace Tony Blair as his new holiday chum. Perhaps her impersonation is such a hoot because the model is so monstrous to begin with; as impersonated by Guzzanti, he is casually indiscreet about his business affairs, but always in that familiar put-upon manner that makes it clear he believes himself to be a victim.
"He's a wonderful character," says Guzzanti, who is single and lives in Rome. "When you're playing him, you cannot go over the top. He has already got there before you." She first impersonated him shortly before he came to power in 1994. "I played him first as a terrifying figure, like someone out of Orwell. Gradually I made him funnier, more of a clown. He's insane, so that gave me great freedom."
Guzzanti knew she was on dangerous ground with her Berlusconi routine. In 2002, the prime minister had requested the dismissal of three television journalists who had done nothing more than cast aspersions on his integrity during the previous year's election. Even so, she was shocked when her satirical television series, RaiOt, was cancelled after just one episode in November 2003. Viva Zapatero! documents the whole sorry affair, beginning when Paolo Ruffini, the director of the TV channel Rai3, announced that he was proud of RaiOt, then that he was taking the first episode off the air, and finally that it was going ahead--all within the space of three days. But on receiving a lawsuit from Mediaset attesting "grave lies and insinuations", Rai caved in after the first broadcast. The remaining five shows are still unseen, despite a court ruling that Mediaset's concerns were unfounded as Guzzanti was working within the realms of satire, and because she did not distort the basic facts.
Suspended in this limbo, in which judicial vindication seems to have made politicians and television executives regard her as even more hazardous, Guzzanti first staged a live version of RaiOt, which attracted more than 15,000 people, and then used her experiences as the basis for Viva Zapatero! The film pulls back from Berlusconi to indict the previous, centre-left government, as well as journalistic complacency. "Italy ranks 53rd in a worldwide index of media freedom, after Benin, Ghana and Bolivia," she says in one of the RaiOt sketches. "Did you hear anything about that in the news? No. But then again, if you had, we would not rank 53rd."
She calls on expert witnesses, including Dario Fo and Rory Bremner, and reveals the extent of ignorance in Italy over satire and its objectives. This is mixed with footage in which she doorsteps the very people who curtailed her television career. It hardly matters that she is stonewalled and snubbed. By incorporating these scenes into her film, Guzzanti is inviting comparison with the cinema of Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield, which can only be beneficial to her international profile. She is guilty of the occasional self-regarding Moore-ism--"We raised hell!" she proclaims after performing her stage show--but translates her personal ordeal effectively into a wider debate on artistic freedom, without too much ego getting in the way. …