Videocracy -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

Venice Film Festival, Venice Days/Critics Week

VENICE -- One of the most popular early titles at the Venice film festival is the aptly titled documentary "Videocracy," a skillful compilation of archive footage describing contemporary Italy as a mirror of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's commercial television empire. In the videocracy that is Italy, image is the key to power and Berlusconi is shown as a master of his own image. Prize-winning Italian-born documaker Erik Gandini ("Surplus," "GITMO"), who now lives in Sweden, presents a persuasive case without resorting to satire or direct political commentary a la Michael Moore, and the film has a morbid fascination that could translate into theatrical as well as TV sales.

While Berlusconi is at the center of the film, he shares screen time with several others whom Gandini has chosen as symbols of today's Italy -- the powerful TV talent agent Lele Mora, who is an open admirer of Mussolini and Hitler, and Fabrizio Corona, a mercenary of paparazzi photos that capture celebrities in compromising moments, which he then sells back to the VIPs who want to avoid publication in Italy's myriad gossip mags. Both these characters have a chilling fascination, but it's a puzzle why the film devotes so much screen time to Corona, a relatively minor personage who, among other things, allows himself to be taped totally naked in his bathroom.

It is when the film focuses on Berlusconi himself that it really catches fire and becomes most revealing. There is footage of Berlusconi's famous villa in Sardinia, shot from his neighbor's terrace, whose owner Marella Giovannelli snaps photos of the prime minister's party guests and sells them online. And the film frequently checks in with a muscular young mechanic from the provinces, one Ricky Canevali, whose dream is to break into TV with an act combining Ricky Martin-style songs and martial arts.

It isn't a pretty picture of Italy that emerges, and it is probably overly pessimistic, granted that there are still a certain number in Italy who vociferously resist Berlusconi's television-land. However, the archival images speak volumes about the seachange that has come over the country in the last 30 years, from the early breakout shows of housewives stripping on TV to the incessant parade of dancing hopefuls vying for a chance to show off their bumps and grinds as TV showgirls (images familiar from the films of Sabina Guzzanti, Nanni Moretti, "The Cayman," etc.)

The film's opening montage of these images, coupled with Johan Soderberg's menacing score, creates a sickening sense of household pornography that is hard to forget. Most of all, TV's power to manipulate young Italians' images of themselves comes across as something that will have a lasting impact far into the future.

Production company: Atmo, Zentropa Entertainment 7, SVT Swedish Television
Director: Erik Gandini
Screenwriters: Erik Gandini
Executive producers: Kristina Aberg
Producer: Erik Gandini, Mikael Olsen, Axel Arno
Director of photography: Manuel Alberto Claro, Lukas Eisenhauer
Music: Johan Soderberg
Editor: Johan Soderberg
Sales Agent: Trust Nordisk
83 minutes