Italy may have its own "Fahrenheit 9/11" with comedian-helmer Sabina Guzzanti's witty and scathing "Viva Zapatero!" Title pays tribute to the current Spanish prime minister and his liberal reforms, but the docu is a sharp-pointed salvo at the troubling rise of Italian censorship. A galvanizing blend of humor and righteous indignation, "Viva" was a surprise addition to the Lido fest's Venice Days lineup, where it scored a major ovation.

Italy may have its own “Fahrenheit 9/11″ with comedian-helmer Sabina Guzzanti’s witty and scathing “Viva Zapatero!” Title pays tribute to the current Spanish prime minister and his liberal reforms, but the docu is a sharp-pointed salvo at the troubling rise of Italian censorship. A galvanizing blend of humor and righteous indignation, “Viva” was a surprise addition to the Lido fest’s Venice Days lineup, where it scored a major ovation.

Docu goes out nationwide on 30 prints, accompanied by the helmer at every stop. While a knowledge of Italo politics and personalities will add resonance, pic’s universal themes shouldn’t hinder wider distribution. Topicality in the U.S., as the Judith Miller debate continues to rage and George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck” provokes discussion of an unfettered press, should result in Stateside interest. This is a necessary addition to all screens boasting of social commitment.

In 2004, watchdog group Freedom House demoted Italy’s press ranking from “free” to “partly free,” on a par with Mongolia and below countries such as Namibia and East Timor. The reason for the fall is not simply Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s personal role as media magnate, but how that control is supplemented by the addition of his party’s jurisdiction over state TV broadcaster RAI, effectively putting 90% of Italian media in his hands.

While Berlusconi’s lawsuits against magazine the Economist are the best known manifestations internationally of his attempts to squash negative portrayals, the chill that has settled on Italian TV in particular has been noticeable for some time.

Comedian Guzzanti had a popular evening show that satirized the world of Italian politics. When RAI canceled the show — which frequently featured Guzzanti doing a wicked Berlusconi imitation — she decided it was time to take a stand. Imagine if Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” were canceled by the Bush administration, and the problem becomes clear. Not only was Guzzanti’s show taken off the air; broadcasters redefined the meaning of “satire” so they could deem the show libelous.

Guzzanti takes the debate to other nations, interviewing some of their most trenchant satirists, such as Britain’s Rory Bremner (a mean Tony Blair imitator) and France’s Bruno Gaccio. These humorists discuss the necessity of satire as a tool not simply for laughs but for forcing people to think, which is where the threat to thin-skinned politicos and right-wing governments comes into play.

Guzzanti clearly understands the ramifications of her argument: Italian democracy is sick, and unless drastic reforms are carried out soon, its problems will only get worse. Through the government’s control of RAI, Berlusconi was able to force off the air two of Italy’s most respected journalists because they compared him with Mussolini. As the docu shows, the comparison was all too accurate.

Tech credits are sufficiently strong, while energetic editing by Clelio Benevento adeptly weaves together studio and on-street interviews, small-screen footage and performances.

Viva Zapatero!

Italy

Production

A Lucky Red release (in Italy) of a Studio Uno, Secol Superbo, Sciocco Prods. production. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Valerio Terenzio Trigona, Sabina Guzzanti. Executive producer, Ferdinando Vicentini Orgnani.

Crew

Directed, written by Sabina Guzzanti. Camera (color, DV-to-35mm), Paolo Santolini; editor, Clelio Benevento; music, Riccardo Giagni, Maurizio Rizzuto; costume designer, Antonio Marcasciano; sound (Dolby Digital), Roberto Sestito, Pancho Banchi, Alessandro Feletti. Reviewed at Cinema Quattro Fontane, Rome, Sept. 15, 2005. (In Venice Film Festival -- Venice Days; San Sebastian Film Festival, noncompeting.) Running time: 78 MIN.
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