Shed no tears for the alligator

By Ben Macyntire (THE TIMES, 07/04/06):

SILVIO BERLUSCONI’S LIFE was always the stuff of soap opera, a gaudy, glitzy one-man show that could have been scripted for one of his tackiest television channels. Here was the self-made media mogul from nowhere, who served guests with monogrammed rolls at his private lair hacked out of the Sardinian coastline, sported a permanent tan of electric orange, insulted everybody and charged ebulliently across the Italian political landscape, one step ahead of the law. You couldn’t make it up; but Silvio Berlusconi did, and the whole of Italy looked on transfixed, with awe, admiration, horror or simple disbelief.

Berlusconi is the star actor, director and producer of his own epic. (He is also the most enraptured member of the audience.) So when a hostile film about the Italian Prime Minister by Nanni Moretti, Italy’s most famous film-maker, came out in the middle of the Italian elections, there was deep anxiety among Berlusconi supporters. Some argued unsuccessfully that its release should be delayed until after polls close this Monday.

Moretti’s Il Caimano (The Alligator) is a most unflattering portrait. It tells the story of a failing B-movie producer who is persuaded to make a film about Italy’s Prime Minister and richest citizen. At one point the Berlusconi character is accused of “going into politics in order not to go to jail”; in the most memorable scene the future magnate is sitting in an office when a suitcase packed with cash mysteriously crashes through the ceiling. “Where does all this money come?” is the film’s bewildered chorus, as the Alligator chews his way to the top, from lounge-bar crooner to media tycoon to Italy’s most enduring postwar leader.

Berlusconi has insisted that he has no intention of seeing the film, but instead of taking umbrage he seems to be taking a perverse delight in the latest evidence of his fame. At a recent rally, the Prime Minister leapt on the stage and told his cheering supporters: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Alligator is here!” No one in Italian politics knows better how to convert adversity and notoriety into fame and power, and few politicians have more adeptly fashioned their own mythology.

The Alligator is not the only fictional creature to cast a shadow over the Italian elections. The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, remains one of greatest novels, a masterful exploration of the Italian political mind. First published in 1958, and adapted into a sumptuous film by Luchino Visconti, it depicts a grand Sicilian aristocrat facing a tempest of change. It is May 1860. Garibaldi, the revolutionary unifier, is about to land; the old order is crumbling into the baking Sicilian dust. The feudal Prince of Salina reflects back to the future and gazes forward into history and utters the single most famous paradox in Italian politics: “Everything must change so that everything can stay the same.”

That maxim remains as relevant as ever to an Italy caught between tradition and transformation, between a beloved way of life and the need to pay for it, between the demands of the present and the pull of the past.

Berlusconi swept to power five years ago, promising “a new Italian miracle”. After so many grey, dowdy, fragile Italian governments (59 since the war), here was a blast of colour, strength and light. Yet Italy has changed little. The free-market conservative who claimed Reagan and Thatcher as his role models has done almost nothing to break monopolies or adopt the big structural reforms that could halt Italy’s slow economic slide, from a growth rate of just 1.8 per cent in 2001 to exactly zero last year. Italian business continued as usual, corrupt and inefficient, and when business leaders rounded on him this year, led by Diego Della Valle, the clothing magnate, Berlusconi shot back at his most outspoken critic with a line that might have been borrowed from The Godfather: “He must have many skeletons in his closet, and many things that must be pardoned.”

The Italian State remains bureaucratically bloated and disorganised, while the deficit rises steadily. The great public works that Berlusconi promised, such as the vast ditch to save Venice from sinking, have not happened. Meanwhile, the prosecutors pursued the tycoon through the courts, steadily getting nowhere, bogged down in a thicket of legal wrangles so dense that most of Italy lost interest. Berlusconi claimed he was the victim of a left-wing witch-hunt. Many Italians chose to believe him, or to forgive: this is a land where redemption is a cherished rite, and everyone admires a rascal.

The polls suggest that the Italian electorate has now had enough of the Alligator with the thick hide and the carnivorous smile — although anyone who thinks that Berlusconi is incapable of a stunning comeback in the final reel has not been paying attention to the script. But it is hard to see the genial, familiar Romano Prodi, the centre-left candidate and widely discredited former President of the European Commission, as the man to drag Italy towards change, though he is a few meagre points ahead in the polls. The restoration of an electoral system with wider proportional representation may mean a return to revolving-door governments. Shackled in coalition to the same hardline Communists who brought him down in 1998, Prodi seems a figure from an earlier era, a repeat of an earlier black-and-white film. If Berlusconi is an alligator, Italian commentators have observed, then Prodi is a giant panda: blinking, bumbling and endangered.

With the economy stalled, the Italian electorate is deeply disillusioned: there is little love remaining for Berlusconi, and little enthusiasm for Prodi. Italian voters are notoriously unwilling to switch allegiance from Left to Right. Most will vote as they have always voted, demanding change while sticking to tradition.

The leopard is unlikely to change its spots, and nor, for that matter, will the Alligator or Panda. The election this Sunday and Monday will change everything, and everything will stay the same.