Franco Maresco’s lo-fi mockumentary Belluscone: A Sicilian Story is one of the most curious films on this year’s Festival circuit, idiosyncratic in both its premise and execution. Pitched as an investigation into what happened to Maresco the director, who had gone to Sicily and disappeared after investigating the longstanding rumours of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi alleged Mafia links, the film splits its focus into a number of targets. It does sift through some of the allegations, but also is interested in Berlusconi’s popularity in Sicily, the same island out of which his dubious allegiances arose. It also makes some light-hearted explorations into the culture of Sicily more generally, including a strange diversion into the phenomenon of musica neomelodica, a kitsch form of pop music popular on the island (a regional take of Eurovision style music and glammed-up Jersey Shore-esque aesthetic) through the form of a rivalry between two stars arguing over rights to a song called “I Want to Meet Berlusconi”. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come together into a cohesive whole – although it doesn’t intend to – but it also doesn’t offer much really in the way of any insight; it feels like a film with a focus spread too thinly, and with a light-hearted approach that obfuscates any tangible cultural or academic worth.
The popularity of disgraced former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a phenomenon that much of the rest of the world has been fascinated by, which is amplified when one considers how rare his tenure was historically. Following the demise of Mussolini’s fascist one party state, the legislate reaction to that monopoly was creating a volatile, delicate system of Parliament in the name of extreme democracy. As a result, there have been more than sixty Governments to hold office since the Second World War, which makes Berlusconi’s nine years in power not just an anomaly, but an institution. And although the countless scandals have made him divisive through Italy today, he is still championed in Sicily. Belluscone tries to offer explanations why that might be, but devolves into anecdotal segues that don’t illuminate. A tenuous argument connecting their identification with the media maverick with their distrust of official state bodies (backed up by three people expressing their hatred of the carabinieri, the military police force) is indicative of this sort of approach. There’s humour that softens or satirises hash realities, and there’s humour that blurs any real insight, and it’s the latter that ultimately plagues Belluscone.
Its approach to the issue of Mafia involvement and corruption is similarly troublesome. Longstanding questions regarding his involvement with la cosa nostra have plagued Berlusconi for years, especially surrounding his opaque financing arrangements that led to the creation of his media empire decades ago. In the spirit of jest, the film dances around the issue; for every sequence discussing the traceable links between the Mafia and the Berlusconi empire, there is a sequence of joking talking heads or a meta documentary moment to distract us. Its indicative of the same mistake so much of liberal media coverage of Berluscone has historically made, as happens with any idiosyncratic or eccentric person in power (much of the Western discourse surrounding Kim Jon-un exemplifies this trap); by focusing on his extensive plastic surgery, the culturally deficient programming he made a staple in Italian television or his notorious philandering ways, it detracts and diverts attention away from the very serious questions of power and corruption that Berlusconi has never really had to answer for.
The film is not without its strong moments, however, and for all my misgivings about the mishmash of tones and styles, there are some funny and clever segments throughout. The song at the centre of the film, “I Want To Meet Berlusconi” captures the film’s sense of humour and the absurd at its sharpest, one of the few moments where a number of its thematic focal points converge. One of the curious final images also has a delicious, ominous irony – as the voiceover says Italy is at a turning point and has shed the old traditions, new Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, the left-leaning political wunderkind that so many hope can bring change (and respectability) to the country is making an appearance on a show call Amici, one of the lowbrow variety extravaganza shows that Berlusconi pioneered, in a leather jacket to the sound of P!nk playing in the background. In a talky film, this image wordlessly shows an Italy still well in the cultural and political shadow of the notorious former leader.