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

(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