A provocative film that rolls out this fall is shaking up European audiences. 'Draquila - Italy Trembles' offers a disturbing look at Italy’s democracy through the lens of the L'Aquila earthquake.
The witty movie poster reflects the film's irreverence
Political satirist Sabina Guzzanti directed the low-budget film that's received big budget attention for its disturbing content about the deadly 2009 earthquake, revealed through a mix of interviews, cinema verite and cheeky animation.
The title plays on L'Aquila, the 13th century city devastated by the quake, and, of course, on the famous literary vampire Count Dracula. Guzzanti casts Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as a bloodsucker who uses the tragedy to boost his power and revive his flagging popularity.
One not so fine day
Near the start of the film, a cartoon version of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gazes at a television set. The media mogul watches gondolas glide along Venice's Grand Canal. Life is beautiful for the billionaire. Or so it seems.
"Spring had just begun on the beautiful peninsula and for Silvio Berlusconi it was a crappy day like many others," Guzzanti says in the film's biting voiceover.
Guzzanti shot more than 700 hours of interviews and footage for her film.
Back in 2009, the prime minister was facing corruption charges for the umpteenth time. Allegations were swirling that he'd hosted wild parties attended by prostitutes. His popularity ratings had taken a dive. The charismatic former cruise ship singer needed to win back his fans, but he had no stage where he could shine. Then on April 6th, at 3:32 a.m., the earth began to shake.
“It was as if God had once again reached out to give him a hand,” Guzzanti proclaims.
In the spotlight
Berlusconi swept into the earthquake zone looking every bit the part of a politician-saving grace at a natural disaster. He donned a hard hat and got to work. He visited the tent city that housed the newly homeless. Bear hugs were delivered, along with plenty of promises to rebuild the city and provide new, seismic-safe housing. He even pledged that every new house would have a bottle of sparkling wine and a cake in the refrigerator.
And the promises did not stop at culinary delights. One scene in the film shows more than a dozen laborers at a reconstruction site. The men are standing atop the work-in-progress, applauding and cheering the prime minister.
"The women? Where are they?" asked Berlusconi, who at the time was facing criticism for his association with a teenage aspiring model.
"All of you are gay?" he joked. "The next time I come, I'll bring you some showgirls."
In fact he did not deliver any bikini-clad girls like the ones that strut on his television channels, and the national network that he controls. But Guzzanti implies that the promise was nonetheless part of Berlusconi's show.
Over 90 people died in the nighttime quake after whole blocks of buildings collapsed
Berlusconi moved the G8 summit to L'Aquila at tremendous expense, but with the guarantee of maximum publicity for the earthquake-fundraising efforts. With cameras in tow, he guided US President Barack Obama through the rubble. The wives of the G8 leaders also visited. Berlusconi basked in the glow, according to the film, positioning himself as L'Aquila's savior.
Rocky road to salvation
However, film footage from a year after the earthquake shows the mayor of L'Aquila walking alone among dusty piles of stone; it has become a gated and guarded ghost town. Renaissance art is exposed to the elements. The city is still in ruins, as are the lives of it residents.
"I think something is beautiful when it's real," Guzzanti told Deutsche Welle. She found inspiration in Italy's neorealist directors who captured the poverty and suffering following World War II.
"You see something, (and) even when it hurts... you watch it," the 47-year-old director said. "The courage to look at it is the first step toward finding a cure."
L'Aquila native Cristiana Alfonsetti watched the film but says she didn't need to - she's living it.
"I have also seen with my own eyes what the film described," she said. "I back it up."
Did Berlusconi cynically use the tragedy to boost his image?
For two months, the actress lived with 30,000 of her neighbors in the tent city where Guzzanti shot many of her 700 hours of footage. Some remained there for five months, through bitter cold and unbearable heat.
Under lock and key
"Draquila - Italy Trembles" reveals that evacuees lost many of their rights along with their homes. Guards patrolled the tent city and barred "undesirable" visitors. In a disturbing scene, evacuees hang protest signs along the camp's fence that guards immediately tear down. Residents were prohibited from assembling, and even what they drank was monitored. Alcohol, Coca-Cola and Italians' beloved coffee were banned.
"The reasoning was that they didn't want to agitate the earthquake victims," said Democratic Party politician Giovanni Lolli in an interview shot for the film. "That's what I'm questioning – this oppressive paternalism."
Another 30,000 evacuees were put up in seaside hotels, far from their city and work, if they still had it. Many opted to find housing in other cities after it became clear the government wasn't moving on reconstruction efforts. Isolated from their former lives, an aftershock of depression struck many.
"I've found many similarities in our experiences to those of prisoners," said Nicoletta Bardi, who used to live in L'Aquila's historic center. "In jail, you are locked in and can't leave. For me, it's the opposite. I am locked outside my life."
In protest, residents tied their housekeys to a fence
Bardi, who also saw and appreciated Guzzanti's film, often visits the street where her house is and gazes through the gates.
"It seems like a piece of me remains inside," said Bardi, tears glistening in her eyes. "I miss my city so much."
In a symbolic gesture of protest, residents have tied their house keys to the fence that surrounds the city - there's no need for keys when the government won't let them go home.
Guzzanti's film stresses that Italy's reaction to the earthquake shows the country's democracy is on shaky ground. She documents what she sees as a disturbing shift toward authoritarianism.
As an example, she shines the spotlight on Italy's Civil Protection Agency, which oversaw the camp and is handling reconstruction efforts. Guzzanti argues that Berlusconi has given it sweeping powers that allow it to skirt the law when awarding building contracts. Guido Bertolaso, who heads the agency, is already under investigation in another case for allegedly giving contracts to friends.
"I truly believe that there's an attempt on the part of our government to create a society to its own liking," Cristiana Alfonsetti said. “Personally, I find this completely revolting."
This society is based around a so-called "New Town," a Berlusconi-backed urban plan. The film shows the inauguration of the prefabricated housing project that's isolated from the old city. The lucky few to land in the identical apartments are thrilled to give tours to Guzzanti.
They're happy to have a solid roof over their heads after months in tents. Yet these apartments have few services nearby, and certainly not Baroque and Romanesque-style churches and a quaint historic center like L'Aquila did.
"They don't have a city anymore," Guzzanti told Deutsche Welle. "They lost everything and (yet) they feel very grateful and happy."
"This is the irony and shows us the power of propaganda. How you can steal everything from someone and make him happy."
Guzzanti is a longtime Berlusconi critic but takes swipes at his opposition on the political left, as well. She also skewers journalists. Both are accused of failing to react to these alleged abuses of power and ignoring the continued lack of progress.
Yet Guzzanti's reaction, Draquila, is getting attention. It's a box-office success - a rarity for a documentary. Residents, however, are still waiting to see if it will bring a holler of "action" for L'Aquila and for Italy's democracy.
Author: Nancy Greenlease
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn