Note: This is the first in a series of reviews of films that played at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham.
Many web surfers have probably stumbled across clips from Italian television on YouTube. Studio hosts joke with laughing and cheering audiences during inane “talent” competitions while half-naked young women dance or pose beside the host in an absurd demonstration that the “vast wasteland” thesis about television may not be far from the truth. Much like their American compatriots in the world of reality TV, celebrity is seen by these competitors as a form of escape, whether from their boring workaday lives as mechanics or office workers or from the anonymity that makes them feel as if their lives lack purpose. This fascination with celebrity may seem harmless, but when the Italian president, Silvio Berlusconi owns most of the country’s major TV stations and is, in some sense, the county’s biggest celebrity, these questions become a little more troubling. Swedish filmmaker Erik Gandini explores this phenomenon in his documentary, Videocracy, which he made, according to the Onion reviewer, out of a desire to explain Italy’s absurdities to his friends back in Sweden.
Gandini traces these absurdities by following three primary subjects: a soft-spoken mechanic who dreams of becoming a reality TV star, imagining himself to be a cross between Ricky Martin and Jean-Claude Van Damme; a famous talent agent who is introduced reclining in a pure white house and who demonstrates his admiration for fascism by playing his ringtone, which is a Mussolini “hymn;” and a papparazzo who attempts to use a prison stint to make himself into a celebrity, eventually to the point that he seems to lose touch with reality.
This exploration of the ways in which the fascination with celebrity might occlude political thinking is a worthwhile project, but like the Italian TV Videocracy sets about to criticize, the film gets lost in the funhouse of opulence and eye candy. Shots of half-naked young women auditioning to appear on Italian TV are filmed in a gauzy, dreamlike fashion that only seems to reinforce–or even heighten–their prurience, as Ella Taylor points out in her Village Voice review. Further, the film does little to convey the shallowness of political thinking. There is no real guide through the Italian political scene, other than Gandini’s halting, impressionistic voice-over. More striking, we never (or rarely) hear from any of the women striving to appear on these shows, much less anyone who is critical of them or of Berlusconi’s degree of control over Italian TV and politics. Although the film has some strikingly funny and absurd moments, the film seems to enjoy much of what it is ostensibly criticizing.