'Belluscone: A Sicilian Story' ('Belluscone: Una Storia Siciliana'): Venice Review

Courtesy of Biennale di Venezia
Instead of concentrating on the titular politician, this offers a revealing and tragicomic portrait of Sicily as a mafia-infected society

Italian director Franco Maresco supposedly explores the ties of Berlusconi and the mafia in this heterogenous "non-fiction" film

VENICE -- Sicilian filmmaker and satirist Franco Maresco is both the director and one of the subjects of Belluscone: A Sicilian Story (Belluscone: Una Storia Italiana), an occasionally hilarious wannabe-documentary about Maresco’s failed attempts to make a film about former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s alleged ties to the mafia. Only in a work by Maresco could this mean that Berlusconi remains entirely off-screen, while the director himself shares the spotlight with a film critic, a shady talent manager and two popular local singers who get into a fight over a song called I want to meet Berlusconi. A crowd-pleaser with left-leaning audiences in Italy, if its raucous Venice reception is any indication, this represents a tougher but not impossible sell abroad, as the film’s frame of reference is thoroughly local.

Film critic Tatti Sanguineti -- who also co-wrote and appeared in Maresco and Daniele Cipri’s similarly slippery docu-fiction How We Got the Italian Movie Business Into Trouble: The True Story of Franco and Ciccio from 2004 -- has arrived in Palermo, Sicily’s capital, to investigate whatever became of the film Belluscone: A Sicilian Story, which Maresco was supposed to make and which was supposed to expose Berlusconi’s close ties to Sicily and the island’s organized crime lords. Sifting through the material Maresco has left behind, it appears that the film’s protagonists were supposed to be Ciccio Mira, a talent agent with dubious connections, and two young artists from his stable, the singer-songwriter Salvatore De Castro, whose stage name, somewhat incongruously, is Erik, and the boyband-ready vocalist Vittorio Ricciardi, who uses his own name.

One of the main reasons the ambitious if clearly still-in-progress project has stranded, it appears, is that Berlusconi was forced to resign as Prime Minister in 2011 and just doesn’t seem all that relevant anymore, though for some Palermitani, his departure was a true calamity. In a couple of short scenes that are as tragic as they are hilarious, Maresco shows the impact of the head of state’s resignation on the nation, from a retired man who tried to commit suicide because he’s sure that without Berlusconi he won’t get a pension, to a distressed woman calling to a religious TV show, who’s told by a shocked priest-presenter when she asks him to pray for Berlusconi: "But ma’am, there are people who are dying of hunger! Good God!"

In talking-head segments, filmed in black-and-white and with foreboding shadows a la Studio Harcourt, Maresco himself talks about his own film in the third person, which seems appropriate when one considers that the film he’s in is the film he’s also talking about as well as directing. Indeed, many lines are blurred in this hybrid project, as it’s often hard to distinguish what -- if anything -- is real and what’s fiction. And to complicate a possible understanding of the material even further, Maresco, who’s still most famous for his cult TV series Cinica TV and feature Totto visse due volte (1998), has always preferred comic momentum over narrative clarity, and at least Belluscone’s got tragicomic momentum in spades.

It may thus not be entirely clear how Erik and Vittorio fit into the narrative puzzle, though it’s clear that these singers, who perform on the squares of Palermo in neighborhoods that allegedly always voted for il Cavaliere, are stand-ins for the people and act both as their mouthpieces (with their Berlusconi song expressing a desire of a great part of the local populace) and as something of a secret go-between in an intriguing if never fully explained subplot that suggests that Sicilian inmates (“every family has one”) receive information from their loved one via ostensibly harmless personal dedications that the singers read out on stage.

Like Mira, Vittorio is loath to badmouth the mafia, instead simply avoiding any mention of it in public, which speaks volumes about how deep-rooted and widespread the problem is. A late admission by one of the interviews goes a couple of steps further, suggesting the mafia "only killed the right ones," while the post-credits kicker is hilarious gem of tragicomic understatement.

Equally fascinating but probably even more difficult to follow for foreign audiences are the various theories about how Berlusconi came to power and how his ties to the mafia started, as these involve a battery of names of politicians, judges and gang members that even not au-courant Italians will recognize but might leave others scratching their head (they could be briefly explained in an opening scroll or in the subtitles).

Maresco here pulls out all the stops, integrating everything from Carabinieri "wiretaps" to old newsreel footage of such insignificant TV stations they might as well be non-existing, though rather than building a coherent case, the filmmaker seems content to simply riff on the notion that powerful men that come out of nowhere have to have been funded by someone with a clear interest in having a secret hand in politics. Though not everything is always logically connected, the barrage of footage still manages to advance the rather sobering notion that the mafia in today’s Sicily is not a niche phenomenon but an integral part of the lives of practically all Sicilians and an organization that has or at least attempts to insert its tentacles in nation-wide politics as well.

Even if everything in this documentary turns out to be fabricated, Belluscone -- this is how someone with a thick Sicilian accent would pronounce Berlusconi -- delivers food for thought along with the laughs.

Production companies: Ila Palma, Dream Film, Sicilia Consulenza, Frenest Film Company

Cast: Ciccio Mira, Vittorio Ricciardi, Salvatore "Erik" De Castro, Tatti Sanguineti

Director: Franco Maresco

Screenplay: Franco Maresco, Claudia Uzzo

Producer: Rean Mazzone

Associate producers Fausto Amato, Sila Berruti, Luca Guadagnino

Directors of photography: Luca Bigazzi, Tommaso Lusena De Sarmiento, Irma Vecchio

Production designers: Cesare Inzerillo, Nicola Sferruzza


No rating, 94 minutes