It is apropos that Netflix’s notoriously populist streaming platform has made two timely documentaries about charismatic populist Italian leaders, My Way: The Rise and Fall of Berlusconi and Grillo vs Grillo available to an American audience. Italy has a long history of intrinsically divisive and shockingly corrupt national politics. As Donald Trump ascended to the presidency, Italianists began making comparisons to two controversial figures. Silvio Berlusconi of Forza Italia fame has obvious similarities. And now that the dust has cleared Beppe Grillo, the leader of the Five Star Movement, there’s a more nuanced case to unpack. They both rose to power on anti-establishment coattails. Best watched in tandem, Italy has a great deal to teach Americans.
These documentaries promise intimate access to complex political outsiders. Grillo, the comedian, is resurrected as the man behind the curtain at war with himself. This duality is at the center of his struggle during a stand-up routine in front of a live audience. Berlusconi, Italy’s longest serving prime minister who has been plagued by endless scandal, interviewed in his home (after serving community service time for tax evasion), is presented in a more traditional biographic documentary. He speaks to his viewer, in English, saying that he will tell his own story. What can we learn about these men, straight from the horse’s mouth?
Both men are extreme examples of the personalization of politics. They used mass communication to present themselves as novelties who would revolutionize the system. While Berlusconi used a video in 1994 to announce that he would build Italy up again, Grillo relied on a blog in 2011. Both say their party is inclusive across the political spectrum. While it is clear that Berlusconi embraces a position at the helm, Grillo seems determined that the party succeed without his leadership.
In Grillo vs Grillo, Grillo voices frustration that people allow leaders to make decisions for them, without protest. He says that, ultimately, the haters will hate and that they will never accept a party founded by a comedian. He’s tired of being the lighthouse when it should be the party of personal responsibility. He doesn’t hesitate to attack Berlusconi by telling his audience he declined a ton of money to do a game show on Berlusconi’s network. Grillo, which means “cricket” in Italian, ends the show by feeding his audience dried insects as a quasi-communion. You want a piece of me, he tells the audience, eat up and be your own decision maker. Since Grillo the politician is not a god, the audience shouts at him, in a final chorus, to F— off.
We learn from My Way that Berlusconi is also a showman, but one who loves nothing more than to take the helm. It’s not surprising that he rose to power by going up against RAI, the state run Italian media, to build a private empire. He would go on and make a tremendous success out of the soccer team AC Milan. According to Berlusconi, he became a leader taking on bullies in the school yard. For him too, the endless haters are just jealous. He is so sure of his leadership skills that he even muses on how he would have made a great pope. (He is after all the same age, but adds that he looks younger—move over Jude Law!) While elbowing his way to the top, Berlusconi befriended Putin and President Bush, which allowed him to punch, drunk with power, above Italy’s weight in international politics.
While Grillo comes out from his luxurious home, stands in the middle of his audience and promises to break the system with the claim that he seeks no personal game, Berlusconi comes to us from his Versailles, as a sun king. He is surrounded by protective staff, a shocking art collection (which includes 300 pictures of himself, which he will one day set up as an exhibit), trophies, gifts, a Jacuzzi in his office, Roman artifacts from Kaddafi and photos of him supposedly ending the cold war. Grillo asks his audience to take away his status as a god while, Berlusconi happily accepts that he is a god. And still, Grillo spends his documentary in dialogue with himself as an alter ego, not unlike Berlusconi talking about himself in the third person. The narcissism runs deep with these two.
Not unlike Trump, Grillo and Berlusconi project themselves as men of the people. Grillo tells his Genoese audience that the city is in his DNA. Much of his stand-up is focused on his coming from a working-class neighborhood. He failed in school, got fired from a job selling jeans, but eventually landed a gig on RAI with millions of viewers. Speaking up against nuclear power got him fired, but it also made him a martyr of sorts. Berlusconi also presents himself as a common man, but one who rose to unsurpassed success. While Grillo focuses on his failures, Berlusconi only discusses his successes, noting that he was unstoppable selling properties in the 1960’s in Milan (while denying the bank’s mafia ties). While they both were forced to sing for their supper, Grillo jokes about performing in a restaurant and Berlusconi stands in front of a picture of himself in his cabaret days, talking about it like he was one of the Rat Pack: I’m just like you versus Don’t you want to be more like me?
And both men claim to be beacons of moral consciousness. Grillo takes care to remind the audience that it’s a miracle that members of his party have no criminal records, and that his fight against corruption has lost him many friends who take advantage of the system. While he thought that world would be falling all over themselves to thank him, there is much distrust. He says you can’t promote your own honesty, others have to do it for you (although he does have over 125 court cases filed against him). On the other hand, no one is promoting Berlusconi’s honesty but Berlusconi. His diplomatic gaffes and trials are endless. He denies the infamous Bunga Bunga party that ended with damaging allegations of his association with a 17-year-old prostitute, but he doesn’t hesitate to add—who wouldn’t want to party with him? Because he’s fun! (Meanwhile his girlfriend, 50 years his junior, stands off camera.)
It can be tough at the top. Both documentaries reveal that these men struggle with depression. Grillo tells us of his suffering; the dichotomy of being torn between being a comedian and a politician feeds his depression, which fuels his political movement. According to Grillo, there aren’t enough pills for Berlusconi. But what about Berlusconi, who seems to always be on top of the world? Berlusconi does not talk about depression directly, but the interviewer discusses the troubling mood swings he encountered off camera.
Based on these comparisons, are these statesman populist heroes or scoundrels? The personalization of politics has built parties tied together only by the individual in the center. Berlusconi continues to try to claw his way back into that role, while Grillo, who remains in the spotlight, asks people to stop celebrating him as a savior. The personalization of politics both killed grass roots movements and demobilized the Italian electorate.
Without a doubt, Berlusconi and Grillo have changed Italy by molding culture and public opinion. Now they fight for the limelight on Netflix, hoping to hide their flaws and to build a respectable international legacy. But most importantly, both documentary subjects teach us that, these days, democracy smells like rotten fish. People don’t vote much, but apparently when they do they elect loose cannons, or the people they wish they could be. They vote for men skilled at leading elections, but not governments; men who spend a lot of time scuffling with their allies. Berlusconi has been labeled as a great entrepreneur, but a failed, superficial, politician. He had the opportunity to fix Italy, but didn’t. It is quite possible that Grillo is going down this same path, and Trump’s legacy seems likely to follow suit.
Although, as a wise Italian hairdresser once said, Trump is not Berlusconi or Grillo. Because Trump controls the United States.