Berlusconi plans 'good news' task force

ROME — The Silvio Berlusconi story should be a natural for filming: It’s got sex, money, legal tangles — it’s even got love songs. And the plot features a central conflict: Can one person be both prime minister and the prime force in his country’s pop culture?

Of course, that question has been raised ever since Berlusconi took office. But the issue is being brought into sharper focus since Italy’s highest court ruled that the mogul has no immunity from prosecution. Going forward, the question is whether he will use his media clout more forcefully as a weapon in his legal battles — and whether Hollywood will get caught in the crossfire.

Medusa, which recently merged with Mediaset, is not just Italy’s top film producer and top local distributor. It’s also part of the nation’s top exhibition chain, after Medusa in May quietly acquired the Warner Village Cinemas loop in tandem with clothes maker Benetton.

As an exhib, Berlusconi has had some early clashes with Hollywood over bookings (see story, page TK).

And Hollywood is also playing a role in the Berlusconi Mediaset trials. Those trials center around an alleged scheme to falsify the cost of TV rights on volume movie deals with U.S. studios, including Paramount, via offshore companies to pay less taxes and create a slush fund. Berlusconi is also accused of bribing U.K. tax lawyer David Mills to the tune of $600,000 to lie on his behalf in court about the alleged slush fund. Both Berlusconi and Mills claim innocence.

Berlusconi — who owns the dominant Mediaset/Medusa TV-movie conglomerate, numerous press outlets and A.C. Milan soccer team, all of which play a pervasive part in Italy’s pop culture — is busy rallying the troops to fight the Milan magistrates, whom he claims are driven by a political agenda.

“Right now we are expecting Berlusconi’s media counterattack,” says media analyst Fabrizio Perretti, a professor at Milan’s Bocconi business school.

“There will be a point at which he wants to write a new chapter in this story, with the same narrative as the previous ones. Namely: He is being attacked by enemies … and his enemies are the bad guys.”

Accordingly, the Berlusconi government announced on Oct. 12 a “task force” to try to counter critical headlines in the international media over Berlusconi’s sex life and legal woes.

It’s a question mark whether Berlusconi would use his film or even TV clout to further his cause. In the past, Medusa, which is Italy’s top film outfit, has greenlit pics based on their commercial appeal, not on a helmer’s political bent.

But at last month’s Venice Film Festival, helmer Giuseppe Tornatore found out that entertainment and government can be interconnected when his “Baaria” was the opening-night gala. The arch-conservative Berlusconi, whose Medusa produced “Baaria,” praised it as a “masterpiece,” touting its supposedly anti-Communist message.

Tornatore is a leftist who called Berlusconi “inappropriate” and said the misinterpretation of his pic was “a lie.” Still, it proved that Berlusconi knows how to use film and high-profile films — the pic is Italy’s official foreign-language Oscar entry — to draw attention.

Berlusconi’s Mediaset TV is Italy’s top generalist web, which also operates several pay TV channels, making him a household presence. As if his power with Mediaset were not enough, he also holds sway over its chief rival, RAI, which as a pubcaster falls under the purview of the prime minister.

But the first stop in his current PR blitz seems to be print media. Berlusconi’s Mondadori is Italy’s top publisher of books and magazines, including influential newsweekly Panorama, top TV mag Sorrisi e Canzoni, and gossip mag Chi. Over the years, these publications have contributed to boosting the 72-year-old Berlusconi’s enduring popularity, enhancing his reputation as both a showman and a statesman. Berlusconi is a former cruise-ship crooner who, even as premier, found time to pen a CD of love songs.

These mags gave little coverage to Berlusconi’s wife Veronica Lario’s decision to file for divorce in May after he attended the birthday party of a doe-eyed blonde 18-year-old aspiring TV starlet known as Noemi, who referred to the mogul-turned-preem as “Daddy.” There wasn’t much word from Mediaset or RAI, either.

The Berlusconi scandals have been a godsend for the rest of Italy’s media. At a time when print news is suffering, “this mix of gossip and politics has been a breath of pure oxygen for Italian newspapers,” Perretti says.

These scandals — of paparazzi photos, taped bedside conversations and rumors of hedonistic parties — have fueled Berlusconi’s reputation as “a mixture of Juan Peron and Frank Sinatra,” as Corriere della Sera columnist Beppe Severgnini recently put it in an essay for Time magazine.

If print media is the frontline in Berlusconi’s new battle, the first shots seem to have already been fired. Vatican newspaper Avvenire wrote an editorial in May that was critical about Berlusconi’s sex scandals. In September, the daily Il Giornale — owned by Berlusconi’s brother — shot back by exposing a years-old misdemeanor involving Avvenire editor Dino Boffo, who was forced to resign.

“Politics and spectacle, in a deadly embrace, are currently at a low point,” lamented that editorial. The incident sparked tension between Berlusconi and the Vatican, with influential Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco denouncing a “grave” attack and vowing that the church “cannot be coerced or intimidated.” But a few days later, Berlusconi met briefly with Pope Benedict XVI in a clear sign of rapprochement.

Meanwhile Berlusconi and his closest political ally, Umberto Bossi, the firebrand leader of the anti-immigrant Northern League, in early October attended the Milan gala of an Italo epic blatantly packed with politics: the 12th-century-set saga “Barbarossa.”

The Bossi-backed blood-and-guts $30 million medieval pic depicts the clash between the Lombard League of cities, including Milan, and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick, played by Rutger Hauer. Those ancient gests inspired Bossi’s current vision of liberating Northern Italy’s wealthy Lombardy region from having to shoulder the weight of Italy’s — and the world’s — impoverished South.

Produced by RAI, “Barbarossa” is proving a dud at the Italo box office, where it opened Oct. 9 in sixth place, taking a mere $600,000 from 267 screens via RAI’s 01 Distribution.

Tornatore’s “Baaria,” by contrast, is doing boffo biz, having pulled in $12 million in three weeks for Medusa.

Aside from the question of whether Berlusconi/Medusa will tackle his woes directly, other filmmakers are tapping into the Berlusconi zeitgeist.

Helmer Matteo Garrone, following his naturalistic mob pic “Gomorrah,” is developing a project about Italo paparazzi in the Berlusconi age, during which Italy’s tabloid society, famously depicted by Federico Fellini in “La Dolce Vita,” has proliferated and deteriorated in its standards to become ever more emblematic of the country’s moral decay.

Nanni Moretti in his scathing 2006 Berlusconi critique “The Caiman” imagined that Berlusconi would be found guilty of corruption charges. In that pic’s fictitious explosive finale, Berlusconi, played by Moretti, descends the Milan courthouse steps inciting Italians to react against the ruling, prompting a mob of his supporters to immediately set the court ablaze.

Moretti, meanwhile, is busy shooting a “comedy of reflection” titled “We Have a Pope.” The helmer-thesp plays a psychiatrist called in to counsel a cardinal elected Pope, but who is, perhaps understandably, not keen to take on the task.

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