Documentary Film Shakes Up Italy

Silvio Berlusconi represents the country's darker side of Italy in a controversial new documentary
Vincenzo Pinto | AFP | Getty Images
Silvio Berlusconi represents the country's darker side of Italy in a controversial new documentary

Lines were long and Italian in the air at the Paris screening of a controversial new documentary last week after its Rome premiere was canceled, its subject deemed "too political" ahead of elections this Sunday.

An often chilling depiction of Italy today, "Girlfriend in a Coma" paints a grim picture of society and politics and includes a gory overview of the Mafia's history. Since its screening at Rome's National Museum of the 21st Century Arts, known as the Maxxi, was nixed, the buzz around the film has become a story on top of a story.

Sponsored by the Culture Ministry, the museum said it would be happy to show the film after the elections — but not before. The filmmakers, former Economist magazine editor Bill Emmott and Annalisa Piras, a London-based Italian journalist, say that reception proves their very point: Italian politics are corrupt, stagnant and maddeningly backward.

Based on Emmott's recent book "Good Italy, Bad Italy," the film takes its title from the 1987 hit song by The Smiths, which Emmott says reflects his own decades-long love affair with Italy. Ranked 180th in the world for economic growth, the country is sick, he said: lifeless, despondent, but not without potential for recovery.

"Italy was Europe's China in the 1950s and 1960s," he told viewers after the screening. "What's happened is that freedom and creativity is blocked," and Italians have become "victims of themselves."

Unlike officials in Rome, the Italian press has given its thumbs-up. La Stampa said the film shows how Italy "has been left dying on the roadside." Il Sole 24 Ore called it "marvelously digestible," and according to L'Espresso, "it freezes the blood in your veins."

Notorious former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who hopes to make a comeback in the elections, represents the country's darker side.

Widely accused of corruption and for failing to prevent Italy's economic crisis, he's awaiting trial on charges of paying for sex with a minor in what's become known as the "bunga bunga scandal."

However, judges have postponed the trial until after the elections on Feb. 24 and 25.

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The film isn't all doom and gloom, however. A fair amount concerns the successes of such movers and shakers as the current technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti, philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco, and Fiat Chairman and Agnelli family heir John Elkann.

Some of the film's most inspiring footage depicts initiatives such as a social cooperative called Progetto Sud, and Se Non Ora Quando, a women's rights organization.

Director Piras, former London correspondent for L'Espresso magazine who left Italy in 1993, says the film is intended to offer points of reflection rather than an exhaustive analysis.

She and Emmott hope their "campaign to wake Italy up" will prompt change.

The first sign may be visible this month: Despite its scrubbed premiere, Italians will get a chance to see the film before the elections in theaters across the country — except Rome's Maxxi theater.