Berlusconi's "Rubygate" in Italy: Private Vices, Public Virtues

vv02.jpg (image: a shot from the movie "Private Vices, Public Virtues")

Many years ago, I took part in a movie directed by Miclos Jancso, called "Private Vices, Public Virtues." It was a dissolute story of sex drugs and rock-n-roll, anachronistically set in the Austro-Hungarian empire.

In the film, the rebellious heir to the crown of Franz Joseph gets murdered by his own father, the Emperor, for a criminal public display of orgiastic excesses, which involve the nobles of the court, plus the many less noble participants of the collapsing empire.

I remember vividly when a group of girls arrived from Rome to participate in the film. "Il gruppo Max," they were called, and they brought their film assignment with them: "pronte a tutto," ready for anything. Meaning ready to do anything requested by the film production, ready to dance, to sing, to strip, to have sex on camera. Ilona Staller, who later became the famous Italian parliamentarian Cicciolina, was one of that group.

And they perfectly performed that task: it was in the seventies, make love not war, hippies, free love, with men and women, among men and women, kings and beggars, friends and foes...

The movie was a commercial flop, and an artistic failure.

However, from today's perspective, that film was clearly a futuristic experiment. These days, all the Italian dailies have headlines which are paraphrases from that Movie: "ragazze pronte a tutto," "vizi privati pubbliche virtu," "il re perverso e triste," papi of the nation....

Of course they refer to the Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, and his endless squalid story with underage girls, professional paid escorts, TV stars who become deputies and government officials, all thanks to his protection.

"Rubygate" they call it in the Italian press: it's named after his biggest and weirdest sex-scandal yet, with an illegal, thieving, juvenile delinquent belly dancer from Morocco.

The most recent public confession of the girl, who is an Italian media star these days, is that she was raped at nine by her Muslim uncles, then almost killed at 12 by her father, when she declared her intention to become a Christian. This appalling story, told in tears, won her an eager audience of millions, and suddenly her affair with the 75 year old premiere seems a true happy-end to her tragic destiny, if not, indeed, true love.

While he is in power, I will eat, declared the girl, after Silvio politically survived by a single vote in the parliament. In the meantime, a very restrictive and harsh law on university and students has been passed in Italy, notwithstanding huge students protests. Factories are closing. Workers are forced to work for minimal wages, or in the black market. Fake bankruptcies are also commonly reported these days, because business owners can earn more profit using state support.

Every day, a new economic model of survival, in an economic crisis where rich become fewer and richer, and poor poorer and vaster in numbers.

In the meantime, the nation's premiere, pressured by the unrestrainable torrent of confessions and leaks from entire squads of party girls, declares candidly that he has found a steady relationship. The search for la dama Bianca of his heart instantly takes the front pages of Italian press.

What makes all this paparazzi nonsense so credible and plausible is the amazing resemblance of these girls, Silvio's sweethearts, to his wife, who recently divorced him. She said that she couldn't endure his dalliances with underage woman, and sure enough, all these starlets seem to be under thirty, if not, indeed, under the age of legal consent.

Somehow, the Italian audience and people manage to behave as if nothing unbearably strange is going on. For centuries, tales of sex and power, perversion and violence have lingered over Italian history: from Caligula to Mussolini, from Caesar to the pedophile scandals in the Catholic church.

However, the new development is that this sinister behavior has become a public fact, and yet, that makes no public difference. On the contrary, those who once secretly envied and admired the immoral dissolution of the premiere of Italy nowadays are loud and public in their firm support of him. Silvio, as the role model, has become the mainstream,not the excess.

Perverse curiosity and passive voyeurism accompanies the daily leaks from the court, the wiretaps, the police investigations. There is fatalist expectation of the worst, which is yet to come. A international Twitter stream of those two vulgar simplistic words, "bunga bunga," makes Italian public life a reality show.

Berlusconi owns almost all the media in Italy, and he has become the star in every one of his own properties. His personal scandals overshadow the mafia killings, the economic crisis, the earthquakes and the floods. Italy, a G7/G20 major world power, is losing its credibility, honor and dignity day by day, sometimes hour by hour.

The president and the Vatican are asking for caution and clarity. As my American friend noticed: the frightening thing is not the slipping façade of Italy, but the genuine face behind that mask. The time of "ragazze pronte a tutto," of court politics as pornography, is finally here.

Jasmina Tesanovic: blog


  1. Italy Schmitaly, yadda yadda; back to the first sentence. Just what, exactly, were you doing, as you “took part in a movie”? Inquiring dirty minds want to know!

    1. to add insult to injury, yesterday our beloved first minister (who likes to be called “the president”) made a phone call during a talk show on a national tv channel about the rubygate: before hanging up he defined the show “un postribolo televisivo” (“a television brothel”) – freudian lapsus ?

      I don’t care, I left Italy the day he took power the second time, and I don’t regret my choice.

      -an ex-italian

  2. You know “unga Bunga” didn’t seem to vulgar when Captain Caveman said it … who knew changing it to Bunga Bunga made it vulgar. Although I suspect Captain Caveman was naked under all that hair – so maybe I should have seen the signs.

  3. hahaha
    assistent director and translator was my job in that movie
    strictly speaking…

    bunga bunga in Italy is a name for a sirty joke …about men an monkyes, i forgot the details

    1. 1) Ilona Staller was a well known porn-star when she was elected deputy in 1987. She stood as a candidate thanks to the “Radicali” (Radicals) party support. If italian women can get a divorce (or an abortion) is thanks to their political battles. Simply put, it was a political provocation (while today things are far different).

      2) It is not true that all italians don’t care about Berlusconi’s multiple scandals. Fact is that owning (directly or indirectly) most of the italian media he can easily influence what people know and thus what they think. Add to this that the biggest opposition party is in the hand of inept people who have always tried to find some sort of agreement with Berlusconi, to the point of not promulgating a law (they had such an opportunity) which would prevent him from retainig all of his media, thus allowing him to control or influcence most of information. Finally consider that in 2005 the leader of that party was charged with some financial related crimes and that he could avoid trial invoking parliamentary immunity. The result is most of people thinks all politicians are the same and that there is no hope, which is probably true. Best thing is that starting 2006 italians can no longer choose which canditate to elect, we can only vote the political party, which means all senators and deputies are chosen by party leaders not by citizens. Put all of this together and you can start to understand why Berlusconi is still prime minister.

      3) While it is formally true that italy owns no nuclear warheads, it should be pointed out that there are more than 90 nuclear warheads on the italian ground, thanks to NATO and american military bases.

  4. “ragazze pronte a tutto” indeed. Very sharp analysis of the situation in Italy. Thank you very much for posting it.

  5. The name is Miklos Jancso or even better Miklós Jancsó. And properly Jancsó Miklós as in Hungarian family name comes first.

  6. Perhaps Berlusconi takes his little girls to vatican city to complete his conquest. After all, with a legal age of consent set at 12, he probably has a little room for manoeuvre. Especially as Nazinger seems to be ok with his dalliances.

    Remind me again, why does a city of celibate nuns and priests need an age of consent which is so low? Ah yes, no child’s behind left.

    And why hasn’t the pope had to deal with any really difficult questions? Yep, he’s bff with Berlusconi.

    Pass the sick-bag.

    1. According to wikipedia, that’s a myth: the age of consent in the vatican city is the same as that of Italy: 14 (with exceptions). First and last time I defend the vatican.

  7. I am very sorry. For myself as an Italian, and because this comment will probably be deleted along with many news and links I tried to get published on BoinBoing to tell the world about the Italian disaster.

    However: I am here to offer you two topics of discussion.

    One – The current Italian situation is apparently unsolvable because Berlusconi bought (very openly, by the way) many “supporting” politicians and istitutional key figures, and the opposition is historically lacking direction. In any case, they are too occupied by patching the many pro-Berlusconi laws to organize any sensible alternative.
    If you are a politics scholar, please describe your possible solution.

    Two – The dictatorship in Italy and the poverty it generates are about the same than in several countries previously “saved” by the almighty Team America – World Police. So why exactly there is no outside help bringing much-needed freedom to Italy too?

    1. Two – Because you guys are white.

      I know that sounds terrible, but it’s what it boils down to. We’re loathe to involve ourselves in the “civilized nations” affairs, but we can “fix” the “heathens” lickety-split, no shit.

  8. Berlusconi is the owner of all the media here in Italy.
    He is hold in position by the Italian worst people… like the “P2″ secret society. It is not a joke, it is proved by official investigation that they where about to do a golpe, just before Berlusconi become a politician.
    Please prove me wrong if you can.
    When this nightmare will end,the Italians will need to be re-educated from the basics of civil living, like letting people cross the road.

  9. Silvio Berlusconi is part of the mafia, a fascist, and former head of P2. He has blood on his hands. Who cares about his sex scandals? I care more about him dumping toxic waste and murdering his opposition.

  10. I feel the urge to say that by looking at a situation from a distance you can believe to understand what is going on, but it’s also true that the more you are far from a place (not only physically, but also culturally) the less details you see.
    For a non-Italian, it’s very easy to say that all Italians think the same about the PM, that he makes mistakes but all is forgiven, or worse that all Italian do not care about what he makes.
    Me, not a citizen of USA, could easily drop my 2 cents and make statements which are not true.

    I’m an Italian citizen, do you want to hear what Italian people think about this situation? you can listen to them, but you will never understand what’s going on. Italy is a world apart, it’s like when you enter into a prison, and there are different rules, and people there act very strangely. And the organization is so complex that a slight change changes everything else.

    Berlusconi is a television personality: he has make up artists and image counselors (consulenti d’immagine.) And everything we see on TV is made to please our own eyes. You had to see him when he visited l’Aquila after the earthquake. It was like a movie! A movie!!

    I wrote this comment to warn you commenters. Please, don’t make heavy statements about my people if you are not Italian, you don’t know what we have to deal with every day.
    Also, thank you Jasmina for this thought-provoking article.

  11. Berlusconi is just a symptom of the larger italian problem.

    Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) wrote in 1811: “Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle merite.” (“Every nation has the government it deserves.”)

    Italy deserves Berlusconi.

    Getting rid of Berlusconi won’t get rid of the problem, just like painkillers won’t fix a broken leg.

    I’ve lived here for over 10 years, and I can’t say I’m planning on staying much longer.

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