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Sparks Fly as Criticism of Italy's Berlusconi Mounts in Wake of Guilty Verdict

Roberto Benigni
Roberto Benigni criticized Silvio Berlusconi.

Oscar winner Roberto Benigni is among those in a war of words following the media mogul's conviction for tax fraud and false accounting.

ROME – Controversy has erupted in Italy this week after several prominent Italians -- including Oscar-winning funnyman Roberto Benigni -- slammed media mogul and three-time premier Silvio Berlusconi in the wake of his conviction for tax fraud and false accounting.

Last week, Italy’s Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s guilty verdict connected to a €300 million ($396 million) tax bill from content acquisitions for Berlusconi’s Mediset, while he was prime minister. But for technical reasons, a four-year jail term was reduced to a year of house arrest and a five-year ban from politics was sent back to the lower court for reconsideration. That means there was no legal obstacle to Berlusconi remaining in the Senate, staying on as head of the political party he founded, and remaining active in the government headed by Prime Minister Enrico Letta.

But many high-profile figures in Italy are criticizing Berlusconi just the same.

Benigni, whose 1997 film La vita e’ bella (Life is Beautiful) won three Oscars, poked fun at a reportedly impromptu pro-Berlusconi demonstration outside the billionaire’s Rome villa as the Supreme Court deliberated last week was orchestrated and financed by Berlusconi allies.

STORY: Italy's Silvio Berlusconi Convicted, But Allowed to Stay in Politics

“Of course [Berlusconi] paid to have people at the demonstration,” said Benigni, a long-time Berlusconi critic. “Otherwise, who would have showed up?”

Renato Brunetta, the leader of Berlusconi’s faction in parliament’s lower house, attacked Benigni’s remarks by criticizing the comedian’s long-running one-man show Tutto Dante (All Dante), about the poet Dante Alighieri, which Benigni plans to adapt into a film later this year.

“A good reason to live well in life and avoid going to hell when we die is that hell would no doubt be listening to Benigni there butchering Dante for all eternity,” Brunetta said.

Several political leaders joined the chorus. Among them, lawmaker Guglielmo Epifani, secretary of Letta’s political party, who said that after the Supreme Court verdict Berlusconi should resign himself to the fact that his time as a political leader is over with. “I see no other option,” Epifani said.

Those comments drew fire as well, with Senate whip Renato Schifani -- another Berlusconi lieutenant -- accusing Epifani of “fanning partisan flames at a time we should be trying to cool things down.”

Letta, eager to avoid a political crisis, also sought to downplay the remarks, even though Epifani is a leader in Letta’s own party.

The situation around Berlusconi is likely to get worse before it gets better, as the coming weeks and months will see appeals of two other Berlusconi convictions (one for illegal wire taps and another for abuse of power and paying a minor for sex) while the 76-year old works to retain his influence while under house arrest.

Twitter: @EricJLyman