If a team of clever screenwriters tried to script a cautionary tale about the politics of fame (and the fame of politics), they likely couldn’t come up with anything odder or more apt than Erik Gandini’s documentary Videocracy. Gandini’s submersion into the weird relationship between Italian television and government was prompted by difficulties he had explaining his homeland to his new friends in Sweden. So Gandini returned home, cameras in tow, to illustrate how in Italy, political power can be just one reality-TV show away.
Ostensibly a critique of inordinately popular prime minister Silvio Berlusconi—who owns a sizable chunk of the media outlets in Italy, and owes much of his political success to his understanding of what TV audiences want—Videocracy follows a deliberate, book-ended structure, with Berlusconi squarely in the middle. On either end, Gandini returns to the same trio of characters: a wannabe TV star who intends to combine pop music and martial arts; a super-agent so enamored of the bygone principles of fascism that he keeps a video of Mussolini on his cell phone; and a paparazzo who emerges from a prison stint as a celebrity, and tries to maintain his heat by volunteering to be interviewed at crime scenes.
Videocracy sometimes feels overly conventional in approach, with Gandini’s halting narration saying what could just as easily be shown. But when the imagery is slowed-down and brightly lit—as it often is—Gandini gives his footage of half-naked dancing girls and hunkered-down TV crews a dreamy quality that feels less like journalism than impressionism. “You have to grow up inside it to grasp it,” Gandini contends at one point, describing how easy it is to get used to a culture where exposure matters more than accomplishment. With Videocracy, Gandini lets the audience stand in his shoes, so we can absorb the absurdity right along with him. But be warned: American viewers may find it all more chillingly familiar than amusingly alien.