From Berlusconismo to Trumpismo

With America’s national neuroses thrust into collective view by the ongoing election season, the lure of long-form TV is more powerful than ever. Fortunately for the soul that abhors primary numbers ...

With America’s national neuroses thrust into collective view by the ongoing election season, the lure of long-form TV is more powerful than ever. Fortunately for the soul that abhors primary numbers, there is another way to experience the libidinal thrill of the current political climate, for buried deep in Netflix’s catalog is an Italian series that combines the decadent pleasures of The Great Beauty with the social acuity of The Wire, the political intrigue of House of Cards, the advertising milieu of Mad Men, and an evocative early ’90s ambience to boot. Two decades removed and a continent apart from us, 1992—created by Alessandro Fabbri, Ludovica Rampoldi, and Stefano Sardo and based on an idea by Stefano Accorsi—nonetheless manages to be both compelling entertainment and a brutally relevant diagnosis of the roots of democracy’s malaise throughout the West.1

Over the course of 10 episodes, 1992 orchestrates a complex web of stories surrounding Italy’s Clean Hands (Mani pulite) investigation into public corruption in the early 1990s. The plot centers on Leonardo Notte (played by Accorsi), a slick ad man for Publitalia (a marketing firm owned by Silvio Berlusconi), who applies the lessons of consumer advertising to politics. The rules for selling tortellini, he realizes, are much the same as those for electing a prime minister: with the right packaging and the right slogans, you can use the fantasies and desires of a nation to earn votes rather than sales. At a time when Italy is being rocked by the findings of magistrates investigating corruption at the highest levels of public office, Notte recognizes an opportunity to mint a new kind of politician: a professional businessman and showman, a familiar, popular persona with a reputation for telling it like it is and a sales pitch that promises the world.

Notte’s quest becomes the focal point for a larger critique of Italy’s political landscape. In a canny blend of fact and fiction, 1992 takes us inside the corruption investigations of Antonio di Pietro (an actual magistrate, played by Antonio Gerardi), as seen through the eyes of a (fictional) detective, Luca Pastore (Domenico Diele), who’s on a personal mission to destroy an industrialist who sold the tainted blood that gave him AIDS. Young and eager for revenge, Pastore tries to recruit the industrialist’s aimless daughter, Bibi Mainaghi (Tea Falco), who transforms herself into a sharp-minded business woman and struggles to reform her father’s shady corporate legacy. Rounding out the show’s social tableau are Veronica Castello (Miriam Leone), an aspiring actress and TV host who seduces political figures to advance her career, and the former soldier and rugby hooligan Pietro Bosco (Guido Caprino), who stumbles into a position as MP for the populist right-wing Lega Nord party and ventures to Rome, where he encounters first-hand the moral compromises demanded by Italy’s corrupt politics.

With all the blown-out hair, high waists, pleated khakis, and oversized suits, 1992 nails the period details. As a piece of recent-historical fiction it’s akin to this year’s The People v. OJ Simpson, which, as Nicholas Dames has argued, uses realism as “a way of thinking about present dilemmas through the tension these narratives create between nostalgia—the simple, irresistible longing for what is gone—and identification, the recognition of how much of that past unhappily persists.” For People this unhappy past involves America’s ongoing racial divide; for 1992 it is the destructive political and psychosexual habits that abetted Berlusconi’s rise.

Indeed, beyond the muted palette of grays, blacks, and beiges and its psychologically attentive camerawork, 1992 stands out for its attempt to grasp a totality, to represent the systematic corruption and decadence that cleared the political stage for a boorish ex-cruise-ship singer and media baron. From the naive Bosco’s attempts to secure a TV role for Veronica—the price of which is a pact with the devil, in this case a world-weary Christian Democrat with ties to the Italian mob—to a portrait of Italy’s heroin epidemic—which decimated a generation of Italians in the 1970s and ’80s2—we see a festering system ripe for upheaval.3

For many Italians, the Clean Hands investigation promised a new era of politics after decades of crony capitalism and corruption whose economic damage has been measured at $8 billion per year.4 The most proximate result, however, was the election of Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia (Go Italy!) party in 1994. That particular Berlusconi government lasted just nine months before losing its ruling coalition, but only after Berlusconi and his network of clients had rewritten Italian law to shield the billionaire from prosecution for crimes that ranged from tax evasion to bribery. And just as importantly, it reinforced the immense power of the Italian media—90 percent of which was controlled by Berlusconi himself by the early 2000s, when he was reelected to power5—to construct reality and manage the public image of a man who embodied the worst excesses of the old system and yet presented himself as the nation’s savior. “I am the Jesus Christ of politics,” Berlusconi once said. “I am a patient victim, I put up with everyone. I sacrifice myself for everyone.”6

Berlusconi’s shadow looms over the entire production, the tragic telos of a spectacle orchestrated before our eyes by the otherwise sympathetic Notte.

In this sense, 1992 offers the prehistory to a dark and only recently concluded era in Italian politics. But it’s about more than the rise of a sleazy billionaire politician: it is about the emergence of a hypermasculine, charismatic, media-driven politics that has claimed popular success around the world, from Putin’s Russia to, more recently, Donald Trump’s America. Here 1992 is especially clever in its use of Berlusconi himself: he appears only glancingly, through archival TV footage, and twice we see him (played by an actor) from behind, at a seaside villa with a group of young girls and later in front of a fawning crowd. Despite such limited screen time, Berlusconi’s shadow looms over the entire production, the tragic telos of a spectacle orchestrated before our eyes by the otherwise sympathetic Notte.

In this way the show brilliantly diagnoses the political, social, and even psychological conditions that enabled—and would, in the early 2000s, sustain—Berlusconi’s patriarchal, clientelistic rule. It is a version of politics built upon male fantasies that expressed themselves most vividly in a style of Italian television that Berlusconi himself pioneered. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, a wave of new shows featuring young, scantily clad women became the norm on Italian TV (Notte’s own daughter says she was “born” for a place on one such show, Non è la RAI). It’s no accident that in nearly every scene, televisions glow balefully in the background with a mix of news (such as the Mafia assassination of politician Salvatore Lima) and dancing women.

Notte is quick to recognize the appeal: in a scene that seems to drop Don Draper into the world of Fellini’s Satyricon, Notte tries to sell a fat, mustachioed client on an advertising strategy that uses young women to sell product. “Want to know a secret?” he whispers into the man’s ear as he stares with evident desire at images of dancing girls,

People out there are horrible. Not you, not me. The others. They dream unspeakable things. Look at them! They’re all slim, size extra-small, not much bosom. Little girls. Isn’t that what all little girls do? In their mother’s clothes they play at being grown up. When dad comes home and finds his young daughters’ friends dancing, laughing, wanting to spank them, because they’ve been very bad. It’s what they want, understand? We’re talking about your customers, not about you, not me. But all those hex-key buyers, as their daughters’ friend sing, dance, and dream of being famous, are observing those young bodies moving, those naked legs … They hear an alluring, subliminal voice … “Hey you! You’re a man, teach me how it’s done.”

More than simply banking on the notion that “sex sells,” Notte here sees the potential to exploit the taboo desires of an entire country. He eventually identifies Berlusconi as the man to whisper into the nation’s ear: It’s not impossible, all this beauty can be yours. As long as Berlusconi’s life could serve as an ideal for the national id, his incompetence as a governor was almost a nonissue.7

The expression of male power through the control of women appears throughout, most notably with Veronica, who bounces from politician to politician in search of TV fame. This was a process that Berlusconi more or less institutionalized during his tenure in the 2000s, when he advanced favored veline (showgirls) to positions in parliament and government. At least one even served in Berlusconi’s cabinet, and others were reputed to double as procuresses for Berlusconi’s famous “bunga bunga” parties, where he and select guests would enjoy a harem of young ladies. Some were very young indeed—it was his relationship with a 17-year-old Moroccan prostitute with the stage name Ruby Rubacuori (“Ruby the Heart-stealer”), that ultimately forced Berlusconi to resign, but only in 2011, after nearly a decade of political leadership.8

The series, then, depicts how a media creature exploited a national neurosis to secure leadership of the country on a model of virility that converted women into objects for male fantasy and conquest. Donald Trump, we might be comforted to learn, is not alone in having bragged about his genitals as part of a political pitch. “Women are lining up to marry me,” Papi Silvio quipped in 2010. “Legend has it, I know how to do it.”6 Emphasizing his penis in lieu of his acumen, Berlusconi, like Trump, served as a gold standard of capitalism’s good life. And just as troubling, 1992 suggests, was the role that an apolitical media and advertising culture played in pursuing ratings. Notte, a former communist, cares less about solving Italy’s problems than about exercising his genius for manipulation—call it the allure of techne.

From a broken political system to a heroin crisis to a populist cult of masculinity, the world of 1992 offers uncanny echoes of our present. The show’s critique is transportable to America because the world that 1992 depicts, ultimately, is one steeped in the narcissism of consumer capital, with a bevy of choices to satisfy every desire, even (or especially) those created by a pervasive media obeying its own profit motive. In other words, the show offers a sobering visit to the recent past that could turn out to be our prologue, or even our future: at a moment when Trumpismo is threatening to pick up where Berlusconismo left off, 1992 shouts with the resonance of prophecy. icon

  1. 1992 is the first part of a projected trilogy, to be followed by 1993 and 1994.
  2. Marlise Simons, “Rising Heroin Use and Addict Deaths Alarm Italy, Where Drug Is Legal,” New York Times, October 8, 1989.
  3. All the better if it treads some of the ground familiar to readers of Elena Ferrante’s astonishing Neapolitan novels, particularly the depiction of the heroin epidemic, Italy’s large-scale psycho-sexual fixations, and dirty political fair-weather friends like Nino Sarratore.
  4. Alexander Stille, The Sack of Rome: Media + Money + Celebrity = Power = Silvio Berlusconi (Penguin Books, 2007), p. 128.
  5. “Berlusconi in a Box,” Economist, September 14, 2006.
  6. Quoted in “Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi in his Own Words,” BBC News, August 2, 2013.
  7. On Berlusconi’s dismal performance, see “The Man Who Screwed an Entire Country,” Economist, June 9, 2011.
  8. Evgenia Peretz, “La Dolce Viagra,” Vanity Fair (July 2011).
  9. Quoted in “Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi in his Own Words,” BBC News, August 2, 2013.
Featured image: Stefano Accorsi as Leonardo Notte