"Italian politics in the last several years reminds me of a spaghetti version of Mel Brooks' ‘Blazing Saddles' — everything goes," said famed Italian journalist and author Giuseppe Severgnini last night to a packed crowd in Smith-Buonanno Hall. Severgnini visited the University to discuss his bestselling book, "Mamma Mia! Berlusconi's Italy Explained for Posterity and Friends Abroad." As the crowd shook in their seats with laughter, Severgnini playfully admonished them, saying, "This is politics — it's serious."
Amid further outbursts of laughter, Severgnini related stories hilarious, absurd and upsetting about Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who he described as a "tycoon-turned-escape artist."
Severgnini opened his talk with a discussion of the book's title. "I think ‘Mamma Mia!' is a perfect summary of the situation," he said. Berlusconi represents "some of the best, and much of the worst, of Italy."
Here representing those Italians displeased with the current government, Severgnini said he believes his nation is particularly good at "soul searching" — an activity "Mamma Mia!" takes up with gusto in its examination of just how Berlusconi managed to become one of Italy's longest-serving prime ministers.
The book, dedicated to Berlusconi's "electors and disrespecters," examines the prime minister's success as a function of 10 different factors — including "the Human Factor," "the Harem Factor" and "the Medici Factor." These 10 factors became the chapters of his book and, in turn, the focus of his discussion yesterday evening.
"I had to write this book," Severgnini said. "It would have been like a coward not to try to tackle politics, and for the last few years, politics have been Berlusconi."
"Everything is not fine in Italy," said Severgnini without a trace of humor, for once, at the start of his conversation. Though the ensuing discussion featured a sometimes ridiculous cast of characters led by a "Houdini" of a prime minister, it touched on topics frightening to many Italians, especially those in danger of losing their pensions.
According to Severgnini, Italy is two trillion euros in debt, and it costs the nation 20 billion euros per month to finance that debt. Despite this, Italy remains a rich country where the collective wealth of families is worth 8.3 trillion euros, he said. "We're not hopeless, but we are badly led."
Berlusconi has made several promises to the Italian people during the current economic crisis — promises Severgnini thinks he does not have "the will or the majority" to fulfill.
"In Providence, Rhode Island, you have your fair share of colorful Italians," but it is a whole other ball game in Italy, he explained.
For example, Severgnini's friend who works at Al Jazeera, asked him to appear live on the air to answer just one question. He readily agreed, only to be posed with the question, "How do you explain bunga bunga to the Arab world?" Thankfully, Severgnini said he is good at thinking on his feet. "Bunga bunga is the collective sound of thousands of Italians banging their heads against the wall in disbelief," he quickly retorted.
It is phrases like "bunga bunga" that caused Severgnini to add an extensive appendix to his book, where readers can find links to videos and articles that show Berlusconi actually made the comments Severgnini cites throughout the work.
The way Severgnini describes Berlusconi — familiarly, as "Mr. B" throughout "Mamma Mia!" — succeeds in explaining how Berlusconi kept power for so long.
"Berlusconi immediately connects to people. He's a master of it," he said. "He can sing, he can flatter if you're a woman — from two to 92, he's going to find you wonderful." And, if you have a weakness, he will know it immediately, Severgnini said.
Severgnini also described him as Italy's "absolver-in-chief" and a master salesman. He tells Italians what they want to hear and gets reelected for it, even if he changes his policies multiple times throughout his term. "In Italy, voters do not punish politicians for inconsistency," he said. "We expect them to be inconsistent, and they never fail us."
"Every Italian has a tiny bit of Berlusconi in himself or herself. If you have more than 50 percent of Berlusconi, you probably vote for him," he explained.
In the section of his book titled "the Truman Factor," Severgnini explores Berlusconi's media presence. "He knows television like no other," Severgini said — unsurprising since he has controlled both public and private television since he became prime minister.
But at the bottom of this portrait of the salacious politician, Severgnini paints a sad picture. "The man desperately wants to be loved and admired at all times."
"There is a sad, romantic moment when we realize the escape artist cannot wriggle free of his binds," Severgnini said. "We don't want to be stuck in the bottom with him."
"I'd rather not have a book and a book tour, and have a decent government and a decent prime minister," he said.