Videocracy: For the Reality TV Junkies Who Think They've Seen Everything


Imagine if Rupert Murdoch could not only run for president of the United States, and not only win, but also govern his lowbrow media fiefdoms via an army of stooge-proxies while occupying the Oval Office. Transplant that cultural drama to Italy, and you've got the staggering Videocracy, director Erik Gandini's documentary about Silvio Berlusconi's three-decade climb from ribald quiz-show producer to Italian Prime Minister. Videocracy doesn't address that history so much as it maps Berlusconi's TV empire, a wasteland teeming with half-naked showgirls, would-be reality stars, and supported by a population in which the image is more than just king -- it is God.

"No one tells about Italian television in a better way than Italian television itself," Gandini told his audience this week at TIFF, where Videocracy amused, baffled and thoroughly baffled moviegoers during its North American premiere. "My idea was basically to enter inside this. It's a balanced view of what's happening in the country and what's happening there. It's much more a portrayal of a world that has been portraying itself too much. I wanted to take the liberty of portraying it my own way. It's something I hope other people will do, too.

"I don't like to be a passive observer, which is what everyone's supposed to be in Italy," Gandini continued. "You have to be happy, have fun -- 'fun' is like a mantra in Italy. And I wanted to show the back side of that with my images."

Mission accomplished. Gandini opens with an introduction to Ricky, a young factory worker convinced that his blend of pop vocals and kung-fu are the key to his reality-TV breakthrough. ("Ricky Martin doesn't do martial arts, and Van Damme doesn't sing," he says, citing his chief influences.) Meanwhile he waits his turn in studio audiences and gripes about women's easier access to stardom. The TV showgirls (known as velines) are a cult of their own, comprising anonymous young starlets on whose flesh Berlusconi's media vision is largely built.

Gandini trips around from there, narrating in the deliberate style of Werner Herzog while blending that filmmaker's knack for character with Errol Morris's more formalist nonfiction touch. In lieu of talking heads, we get a vast white bedroom where candid superagent Lele Mora lurks in repose, or we tag along as scandal-hunting paparazzi-turned-TV star Fabrizio Corona hilariously deconstructs his role in Italy's fame hierarchy. He calls himself a revisionist Robin Hood ("I take from the rich guy, but I don't give to the people, I give to me"), when he really does little more than blackmail his subjects with photos they don't want released. In one case, Berlusconi buys back an "unflattering" picture of his daughter just so can run it in his own magazines.

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