Berlusconi still haunts Italy’s political scene

Silvio Berlusconi's political career was declared all but over earlier this year as legal woes and poor voting figures took their toll, but the media magnate continues to haunt Italy's corridors of power thanks to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

Berlusconi still haunts Italy's political scene
Renzi's Democratic Party needs Berlusconi's Forza Italia party to tow the line if he is to get key bills through parliament. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

The former premier, who is currently doing community service for tax fraud, has gleefully donned the hat of political interlocutor, and met with baby-faced Renzi on Wednesday to discuss key issues from institutional reforms to the new electoral law.

Renzi's centre-left Democratic Party may be flying high at the moment, but the reform-minded PM needs Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia (Go Italy) party to tow the line if he is to get key bills through parliament.

"We can certainly say that Matteo Renzi is keeping Silvio Berlusconi alive politically, and possibly considers him his best friend," Gianfranco Pasquino, political science professor at the John Hopkins school in Bologna, told AFP.

"Renzi is walking a tightrope because he needs Berlusconi, faced with protests from the left wing of his party," he said.

The 39-year-old is being challenged on several bills by discontent backbenchers in the Democratic Party's left wing.

But his troubles are nothing to those of Berlusconi and a heavily divided Forza Italia, which is still smarting from an embarrassing performance at the European election and boasts a €2.0 million ($2.58 million) deficit as well as voter approval ratings of just 15.5 percent.

"Within Forza Italia, the parliamentary group revolts have almost become a mutiny. In the space of a year, the party has undergone a profound transformation. From anarchical monarchy to an oligarchy of clans," the left-leaning Repubblica daily said.

Experts say its unravelling stems from Berlusconi's legal troubles last summer, when he was definitively convicted for tax fraud and sentenced to a year in prison, which was converted to community service in an old people's home in Milan.

Women in the 'magic circle'

His ousting from parliament following the guilty verdict saw him abruptly cut off from his party and the political scene in Rome, leaving a leadership vacuum.

Party members have accused two women in his so-called "magic circle" of close allies of trying to manipulate him and take over the reigns of power.

The first is his girlfriend Francesca Pascale, who vets those wanting access to the 77-year-old and has the power to turn people away. Almost 50 years his junior, she has taken on an intimate advisory role which irritates the party's former top dogs.

The other is Maria Rosaria Rossi, 42, nicknamed "care assistant" by her enemies within Forza Italia because she never leaves the ageing Latin lover's side.

She was recently appointed the party's sole administrator, to the great displeasure of green-eyed members who consider her little more than small fry.

Behind the scenes the battle to succeed Berlusconi as head of the party is intensifying. While the "magic circle" wants the magnate to remain — at least as a figurehead — the rebels, lead by one of his ex proteges Raffaele Fitto, is calling for greater internal democracy, starting with primary elections.

As the war within Forza Italia escalates, a number of MPs have stopped paying their dues — €800 a month — leaving a gaping hole in the coffers.

And with the new law on party financing forbidding individuals from donating more than €100,000 a year, billionaire Berlusconi could not plug the gap, even if he wanted to.

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Here’s the first glimpse of the Italian Silvio Berlusconi film

The trailer is finally here for Paolo Sorrentino's biopic of Silvio Berlusconi, a man who the director called "an archetype of Italianness".

Here's the first glimpse of the Italian Silvio Berlusconi film
A scene from Paolo Sorrentino's film about Silvio Berlusconi, Loro. Image: Universal Pictures International Italy/YouTube

Filmed in Rome and Tuscany last summer, the hotly anticipated Italian-language feature – titled Loro or “Them” – does not yet have an official release date, but is expected to premier at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

Sorrentino, best known internationally for his Oscar-winning film La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) and the TV series The Young Pope, has said he wanted to profile Italy's most infamous living politician because “he is an archetype of Italianness and through him, you can describe Italians”.

To judge by the trailer released on Monday, the film will focus at least as much on Berlusconi's personal life as his long career in media and politics. 

“I was interested in the man that’s behind the politics, but I am not so interested in the political stuff,” Sorrentino told the BBC last year, explaining that he would also tell the story of those around the businessman-turned-politician who tried to use his position to “change the course of their own life”. 

The teaser features multiple women, many of them scantily clad, but only a passing glimpse of Berlusconi, played by Toni Servillo. 

Paolo Sorrentino (L) and Toni Servillo with the 2014 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for La Grande Bellezza. Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images/AFP

The Neapolitan actor – who starred in La Grande Bellezza as well as Il Divo, Sorrentino's musical biopic of another former premier, Giulio Andreotti – has already impressed the Italian media with what La Repubblica called his “metamorphosis”. Photos from the set showed Servillo sporting Berlusconi's trademark tan and distinctive hairline; now he's winning praise for his spot-on impression of the four-time prime minister's voice.

We've only heard him say one line so far. Loro's trailer opens with a man's voice asking, “What did you expect: to be the richest man in the country, become prime minister and be madly loved by everyone too?” 

As Berlusconi, Servillo replies: “Yes, that's exactly what I expected.”

It's not clear if the real Berlusconi has seen the film. While he originally offered to allow Sorrentino to shoot inside his private villas, by October last year he said he had heard unwelcome rumours that the film might be a “political aggression towards me”.   

According to La Repubblica, Sorrentino did get the chance to meet Berlusconi's second ex-wife, Veronica Lario, with whom the politician is engaged in a long-running legal battle over alimony. Played by Elena Sofia Ricci, Lario also features in the trailer, looking mournful on a trampoline.

Berlusconi's pet poodle Dudù also makes an appearance. 

The teaser comes just a week after Berlusconi's greatest political defeat to date: his Forza Italia party won just 14 percent of the vote in Italy's general election, making it second within the centre-right bloc to the populist League. Should the group manage to form a government, the League – not Berlusconi – now gets to decide who will be prime minister.

Little has been seen or heard from Berlusconi publicly since the results came in. Many expect it to be the last time that the 81-year-old leads his party into an election, despite his supposed political immortality.

“The world has an idea of Berlusconi [as] a very simple person,” Sorrentino told the BBC. “But… I understood that he is more and more complicated than this. I would love to try to describe this complex character.”