Italian election: Country is a ‘girlfriend in a coma’ that needs waking up

With Italy’s election approaching, a new film fronted by former Economist editor Bill Emmott asks whether the country can wake from its economic stupor.

The documentary film’s makers define it as a blend of Michael Moore, Adam Smith and Bunga Bunga, with a dash of Dante. Indeed, Italy’s current political and economic climate provides plenty of story ideas for witty investigative journalists.

Presented by former Emmott – on whose book Good Italy, Bad Italy it is based – and filmmaker Annalisa Piras, it explores Italy’s political, economic and social decline over the past 20 years finding “a moral collapse unmatched anywhere else in the West”.

Emmott’s quest includes interviews with prime minister Mario Monti; philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco, film director Nanni Moretti; women’s rights activist Lorella Zanardo; Fiat’s Canadian-Italian chief executive Sergio Marchionne; and Gomorrah author Roberto Saviano, among others.

The movie is particularly interesting to watch ahead of Italy’s general election in February, as it explains what the candidates are fighting over and arguing about.

‘Use and abuse’ of powers

At the centre of the political stage, Emmott finds a need to revive the economy, to make the justice system more competitive, and release the blocked energies of Italian entrepreneurs and other would-be innovators.

But, according to Emmott, the real point yet to be discussed is the role of the state and “the use and abuse” of its powers which is keeping Italy in a coma.

“Why? Because through its laws, its rules, its successes and failures in enforcing those rules, and through the way its badly-run and badly-allocated public finances affect the choices and freedoms of all Italian households and companies, the state has built the biggest blockages to progress, prosperity and creativity,” Emmott says.

“It is the instrument of corruption, of privileges and protections, of distortions, of patronage and lack of meritocracy, of inefficiency, of discouragement.”

Novelist Eco summarises the same point, saying Italians have lost their “sense of the state” since Roman times. This concept is reflected a common combination of widespread illegality and extremely high level of court litigiousness among Italians.

“The state needs to become Italians’ liberator, not their prison guard or their badante [care worker]. So what changes in the state need to happen to make it so?” Emmott asks his viewers.

Cautious optimism

But not all is lost for Italy, and the documentary leaves room for a cautious optimism.

Following-up after the movie, the journalist met with Matteo Renzi, the 37-year-old mayor of Florence who recently confronted Pierluigi Bersani in the primary elections of the Democratic Party.

“He couldn’t look less like a typical expensively suited Roman politician, being clad in crumpled blue jeans, a white open-necked shirt and an informal jacket,” Emmott wrote in an article for the Financial Times.

“Nor could he be less like his Democratic Party’s arch-enemy, the 76-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, for he has his own hair and his skin is not orange.”

Emmott also met again with Marchionne, chief executive of Fiat.

“He is in the strange position of being a hero in Detroit for having bought and turned around Chrysler, and is even hugged by union leaders, but a villain in Italy for his efforts to modernise Fiat’s factories there,” Emmott said.

In return, Marchionne asked Emmott why he had become so interested in Italy. Emmott replied he never imagined getting involved in political reporting in Italy because he worked as Tokyo correspondent for The Economist in the 1980s and has covered Japan and China ever since.

“Nor would I have dreamed that this old print hand, with a face perfectly suited to radio, would one day make a film about Italy,” he said.

“It is called Girlfriend in a Coma, echoing the 1980s song by The Smiths – which, I confess, had passed me by – to convey that the country with which I have become enamoured has knocked itself out for the past 20 years and needs waking up.”


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