University of Copenhagen

Faculty of Humanities
Department of Media, Cognition and Communication
Course: Nation, Faith, Identity and Modern Media
Module: Valgfrit emne 1
Curriculum: Media Studies (2008)
Instructor: Karsten Fledelius
Spring 2013

ON EXACTITUDE IN MEDIA - GIRLFRIEND IN A COMA

Antonio Monachello (fcb642)
curriculum: Media Studies (M.A.) 2008
mob.: 50146326
fcb642@alumni.ku.dk

On exactitude in media - Girlfriend in a coma
Table of contents
1

1. Introduction

1

2. On theory, scope, terminology, methodology and strategy

4

3. Theory

4

3.1 Film and media studies

5

3.2 Critical discourse analysis and discourse theory

9

4. On the sociopolitical context

10

5. On production and distribution

11

5.1 Structure of the documentary

11

6. Analysis and discussion

11

6.1 Release

14

6.2 Documentary

23

7. Conclusion

23

8. Bibliography

24

8.1 Filmography

On exactitude in media - Girlfriend in a coma
“There's nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear.” - Daniel Dennett

1. Introduction
As much of the world's population, millions of Italians are facing years of economic crisis.
National elections have changed little according to the discourses in the public sphere, and in
both Italian and foreign media news on the bad conditions of Italy are overwhelming.
During the electoral campaign, a documentary called “Girlfriend in a coma” appeared, trying
to explain why Italy (the girlfriend in the title) has the problems 'she' is facing.
Produced in 2012 by Springshot productions and released this year, it was noted for the
creative combination of facts, interviews and animation, testifying to “a shift towards more
self-consciously 'arty' and expressive modes of documentary filmmaking.”1 Presented as
“blend of Michael Moore, Adam Smith, and 'bunga bunga' (local slang for Berlusconi's wild
parties) with a dash of Dante,”2 it caused some controversy on its release.3
This paper will analyse how this documentary explores and at the same time employs
different audiovisual and linguistic features which form social representations of a modern
nation and their purposes. It will examine also the context surrounding the documentary,
considering also the material on the platform constructed on the Internet in support of the
'mission' proposed by the documentary.

2. On theory, scope, terminology, methodology and strategy
Nichols' (2001) advice on how to analyse a documentary is focused on the cinematic language
employed, but he remarks in the end: “Part of the challenge of film history and criticism is to
understand how analyses vary with time and place as different viewers, with different
perspectives, bring their critical skills to bear on a given film.” (p. 271) This paper will try to
map the interpretation of the object in analysis ranging from a postmodernist approach,
1 Bruzzi, 2000: 197
2 Watch Girlfriend in a Coma - http://girlfriendinacoma.eu/watch/ Accessed on May 12, 2013
3 variety.com (2013, February 3) Vivarelli, N. In Italy, cries of censorship over Berlusconi docu
http://variety.com/2013/film/news/in-italy-cries-of-censorship-over-berlusconi-docu-1118065573 Accessed
on May 12, 2013

1

characterized by an infinite possible interpretation and the only possible interpretation by a
single enlightened viewer or author. The terminology which Nichols provides about the
modes of documentaries, though, leaves out the linguistic component.
On the other hand, in the field of discourse analysis, Fairclough (1995) does not look at the
different modes which forms the documentary. Therefore, this paper will use a combination of
theory from film and media studies, especially regarding documentary and realism in
audiovisual media, critical discourse analysis and discourse theory. History and politics also
take their role.
Since the nature of (the) documentary, this will be an open-ended analysis. It will use the
rhetorical question and the appeal to common sense as a tool to address the reader to a more
comprehensive look at the subjects and the objects depicted and addressed in the
documentary.
As the documentary may be a transparent mixture of fact and fiction (omissions about facts,
use of persuasion, metareflexivity), this paper will be too (omissions in theory, a not complete
analysis, persuasion, metareflexivity). It will consider the object in examination describing the
form and the content in relation to themselves, to the author, to the viewers, to the 'true' social
reality that it tries to represent. Throughout the paper, the term 'author' is to be intended as the
person or the persons who made the documentary.
Following Grodal's (2009: 270) belief that “concepts such as reality, realism, and truth are
even more pertinent today, in a postindustrial society with pervasive audiovisual
representations, than they were in the past”, the theory about documentary will concern the
representation of such reality. At the same time, focusing on the characteristic high modernist
and postmodernist “metafiction, reflexivity, and intertextuality”, this paper will try to avoid,
as Grodal poses it, “the skepticism about the quest for realism.”
For Godard, “all great fiction films tend towards documentary, just as all great documentaries
tend toward fiction… each word implies a part of the other. And he who opts wholeheartedly

2

for one, necessarily finds the other at the end of his journey.”4
How is documentary perceived in film and media studies?
Bruzzi (2006: 46) argues that “documentary film is traditionally perceived to be the hybrid
offspring of a perennial struggle between the forces of objectivity (represented by the
'documents' or facts that underpin it) and the forces of subjectivity (that is the translation of
those facts into representational form).”
Nichols (2001: 6-7) shares a similar argument: “Neither a fictional invention nor a factual
reproduction, documentary draws on and refers to historical reality while representing it from
a distinct perspective. Commonsense ideas about documentary prove a useful starting point.
As typically formulated they are both genuinely helpful and unintentionally misleading.”
Furthermore, he argues that “the division of documentary from fiction, like the division of
historiography from fiction, rests on the degree to which the story fundamentally corresponds
to actual situations, events, and people versus the degree to which it is primarily a product of
the filmmaker’s invention. There is always some of each. The story a documentary tells stems
from the historical world but it is still told from the filmmaker’s perspective and in the
filmmaker’s voice. This is a matter of degree, not a black-and-white division.” (p. 12)
In a similar way, the paper will tend towards the reality of the documentary in relation to the
viewer and to the social as depicted, focusing on the “double perceptual reality of images.”5
Rather than trying to define if the author of this documentary utilised more the elicitation of
emotions (which can tentatively called style) or the transmission of 'intellectual' facts, this
paper will analyse how their combination works, trying to unveil the ideological square 6 (van
Dijk, 1998: 267) in which we can place this documentary and consequently this paper.

4 Jean Narboni & Tom Milne, (eds.) (1986) Godard on Godard: Critical Writings by Jean-Luc Godard. New
York: Da Capo. page 132
5 Aumont, Jacques (1997) The Image. London: BFI Publishing. page 40
6 “ 1) express/emphasize information that is positive about Us;
2) express/emphasize information that is negative about Them;
3) suppress/de-emphasize information that is positive about Them;
4) suppress/de-emphasize information that is negative about Us”.

3

3. Theory
3.1 Film and media studies
The taxonomy provided by Nichols (2001:31-32) offers an useful framework which seems
complete for the analysis of documentaries. He distinguishes between different modes that an
author can use in his/her work. These are:

“Poetic mode: emphasizes visual associations, tonal or rhythmic qualities, descriptive
passages, and formal organization. [...] This mode bears a close proximity to
experimental, personal, and avant-garde filmmaking.

Expository mode: emphasizes verbal commentary and an argumentative logic. [...]
This is the mode that most people associate with documentary in general.

Observational mode: emphasizes a direct engagement with the everyday life of
subjects as observed by an unobtrusive camera.

Participatory mode: emphasizes the interaction between filmmaker and subject.
Filming takes place by means of interviews or other forms of even more direct
involvement from conversations to provocations. Often coupled with archival footage
to examine historical issues.

Reflexive mode: calls attention to the assumptions and conventions that govern
documentary filmmaking. Increases our awareness of the constructedness of the film’s
representation of reality.

Performative mode: emphasizes the subjective or expressive aspect of the filmmaker’s
own involvement with a subject; it strives to heighten the audience’s responsiveness to
this involvement. Rejects notions of objectivity in favor of evocation and affect. [...]
The films in this mode all share qualities with the experimental, personal, and avantgarde, but with a strong emphasis on their emotional and social impact on an
audience.”

As he argues, “once established, though, modes overlap and intermingle. Individual films
often reveal one mode that seems most influential to their organization, but individual films
can also 'mix and match' modes as the occasion demands.” (p. 32) Regarding the documentary
in analysis, it will be clear how an author could use every mode.
Arguing about the reflexive mode, Bruzzi (2001: 198) writes that “one repercussion of the
4

establishment of a documentary canon that has historically marginalised films emphasising
the author's presence is that it has been too readily assumed that the repression of the author
has been necessary to the implementation of objectivity.”
“Some of the critics who have made the point that representations are constructions and that
reality is socially constructed tend to use construction as synonymous with illusion. From an
evolutionary point of view, however, not only the media but all our mental processes represent
constructions, and realist representations establish and negotiate an intersubjective world that
facilitates or makes possible our experiences and actions as human beings.” (Grodal, 2009:
270)
Film and media studies alone are not sufficient to examine what a complex matter could be a
documentary about the economic and political situation of an entire nation and their mutual
relationship, therefore it is necessary to introduce the concepts and definitions of critical
discourse analysis and discourse theory.
3.2 Critical discourse analysis and discourse theory
Fairclough (1995:46-47) bridges the gap between media, ideology and discourses: “the
concept of ideology often implies distortion, 'false consciousness', manipulation of the truth in
the pursuit of particular interests. The only way of gaining access to the truth is through
representations of it, and all representations involve particular points of view, values and
goals. [...] But this does not entail a relativism which sees all representations as equal. In
media analysis one is always comparing and evaluating representations, in terms of what they
include and what they exclude, what they foreground and what they background [...].
Representations can be compared in terms of their partiality, completeness and interestedness,
and conclusions can be arrived at - and constantly arrived at - about the relative
(un)truthfulness of representations.”
What is Critical discourse analysis (CDA)? It “is a type of discourse analytical research that
primarily studies the way social power abuse, dominance, and inequality are enacted,
reproduced, and resisted by text and talk in the social and political context.” (van Dijk, 2001:
354)

5

In order to better approach both the 'microlevel' of the documentary (and the discourses
surrounding it), and the 'macrolevel' society, van Dijk (2001: 354) offers a classification
which will be presented in almost its entire extension: “Language use, discourse, verbal
interaction, and communication belong to the micro-level of the social order. Power,
dominance, and inequality between social groups are typically terms that belong to a
macrolevel of analysis. This means that CDA has to theoretically bridge the well-known "gap"
between micro and macro approaches [...]. There are several ways to analyze and bridge these
levels, and thus to arrive at a unified critical analysis:
1 Members–groups: Language users-engage in discourse as members of (several) social
groups, organizations, or institutions; and conversely, groups thus may act "by" their
members.
2 Actions–process: Social acts of individual actors are thus constituent parts of group actions
and social processes [...].
3 Context–social structure: Situations of discursive interaction are similarly part or
constitutive of social structure; [...]
4 Personal and social cognition: Language users as social actors have both personal and social
cognition: personal memories, knowledge and opinions, as well as those shared with members
of the group or culture as a whole. Both types of cognition influence interaction and discourse
of individual members, whereas shared "social representations" govern the collective actions
of a group.”
A complex concept which is often used in both everyday discussions and academic works is
that of ideology. van Dijk (1998:2) argues that everyday concepts of the notion of 'ideology'
could be considered as “residues of scholarly debates” for example between Marxist and nonMarxists scholars: “(a) ideologies are false beliefs; (b) ideologies conceal real social relations
and serve to deceive others; (c) ideologies are beliefs others have; and (d) ideologies
presuppose the socially or politically self-serving nature of the definition of truth falsity.”
Contrary to traditional critical approaches, van Dijk's concept of ideologies poses them as
“not inherently negative, nor limited to social structures of domination.” To him, “there are
good theoretical and empirical reasons to assume that there are also ideologies of opposition
and resistance, or ideologies that only promote the internal cohesion of a group [...]” (p. 11)

6

Moreover, ideologies “are not metaphysical or otherwise vaguely localized systems 'of' or 'in'
society or groups or classes, but a specific type of (basic) mental representations shared by the
members of groups, and hence firmly located in the minds of the people.” And, “just like
languages, ideologies are as much social as they are mental.” (p. 48)
He argues that “values play a central role in the construction of ideologies. Together with
ideologies they are the benchmark of social and cultural evaluation. Like knowledge and
attitudes, they are located in the memory domain of social beliefs. That is, we do not take
values as social or sociological abstractions, but as shared mental objects of social cognition.”
(p. 74)
They “are shared and known, and applied by social members in a large variety of practices
and contexts. Obviously, they form the basis of all processes of evaluation [...]. Thus, if
ideologies are the basis of

group beliefs, and if values are in turn broader and more

fundamental, values must be the basis of the evaluative systems of a culture as a whole.
Indeed, values are the pillars of the moral order of societies” (p. 74), they may be shared by
individuals but “personal goals or ideals” are not values.
Similar to critical discourse analysis, yet with some distinctions which are out of scope in this
paper, some concepts from Laclau and Mouffe's discourse theory could be drawn upon to
better understand how to use discourse analysis. As Jorgensen and Phillips (2002) summarise,
they “do not do much detailed analysis of empirical material themselves, [as] when they do
identify specific discourses, they are interested in these as abstract phenomena rather than as
resources [...].” They recapitulate some of the concepts of discourse theory which could be
useful as tools: key signifiers, which are nodal points (which organise discourses, for
example 'liberal democracy'), master signifiers (which organise identity, for example 'man')
and myths (which organise a social space, for example 'the West'); chains of equivalence, i.e.
“the investment of key signifiers with meanings”, since “they mean almost nothing by
themselves; concepts concerning identity: group formation, identity and representation;
concepts concerning analysis: floating signifiers, antagonism and hegemony. (pp. 50-51) “It
just takes a little imagination” to use them, they argue, an expression which recalls the
imagination needed at the start of the documentary.

7

But how can we define identity?
“It is by being represented in this way by a cluster of signifiers with a nodal point at its centre
that one acquires an identity. Identities are accepted, refused and negotiated in discursive
processes. Identity is thus something entirely social. Laclau and Mouffe, then, have the
traditional Western understanding of the individual in which identity is seen as an individual,
inner core to be expressed across contexts. Likewise, they have deserted historical
materialism with its view of identity as determined by the base, situating identity instead in
discursive, and so in political, practices.
The understanding of identity in Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse theory can be summarised as
follows:
• The subject is fundamentally split, it never quite becomes ‘itself’.
• It acquires its identity by being represented discursively.
• Identity is thus identification with a subject position in a discursive structure.
• Identity is discursively constituted through chains of equivalence where signs are sorted and
linked together in chains in opposition to other chains which thus define how the subject is,
and how it is not.
• Identity is always relationally organised; the subject is something because it is contrasted
with something that it is not.
• Identity is changeable just as discourses are.
• The subject is fragmented or decentred; it has different identities according to those
discourses of which it forms part.
• The subject is overdetermined; in principle, it always has the possibility to identify
differently in specific situations. Therefore, a given identity is contingent– that is, possible but
not necessary.” (p. 43)
Going 'back' to film studies, Ponech (1997: 218) argues that “[...] movies cannot be assumed
to result from agents acting on stable, decisive purposes and plans—where an informed
argument is one addressing contrary hypotheses and data emerging from within the best
currently available work in such pertinent fields as linguistics, the philosophy of action, and
philosophical psychology. Theorists would also need to offer similar grounds for maintaining
that it is always or often one reasonable option to doubt that competent spectators have the
ability to detect the actual intentions of cinematic communicators.”

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4. On the sociopolitical context
Since the production of the documentary stems from British soil, before beginning the
analysis is useful to take a look at the media systems in United Kingdom and Italy, with the
ideal models of media-politics relations by Hallin and Mancini (2005):
United Kingdom is characterized by the “North Atlantic or Liberal model”, with medium
newspaper circulation, a neutral commercial press, information-oriented journalism with
strong professionalisation and non-institutionalized self-regulation, and a strong public
broadcasting which is “largely insulated from direct political control.”
Italy instead is characterized by the “Mediterranean or Polarized Pluralist Model”, with by a
low newspaper circulation and elite politically-oriented press, high political parallelism and
commentary-oriented journalism. There is weaker professionalisation and instrumentalisation
is common. Broadcast has a parliamentary or government model with a strong state
intervention, subsidies and periods of censorship.
Regarding the political parties, “according to a largely accepted point of view” as Blondel and
Thiébault (2010) put it, Italian political history after the Second World War is divided into two
major phases, with the Tangentopoli ('Bribesville') scandal in the beginning 1990s as
watershed. While the political system was characterized by a polarised pluralist system,
governmental instability and a lack of alternance in government, in the 'Second Republic'
parties become 'personalised', centred on charismatic personalities. This change is particularly
clear when analysing the figures of Umberto Bossi (Northern League) and Silvio Berlusconi
(Popolo della Libertà, heir to Forza Italia): “both founded their respective parties; both
experienced uninterrupted party leadership, both largely used populist rhetoric and both
produced huge changes in Italian politics.” (p. 188)
Moreover, they remark that while for the right-wing parties it has been part of a deliberate
strategy, the change in the left-wing ones is “probably an unintended consequence of the
modernisation and 'mediatisation' of the political and electoral scenes” (p. 175) and that such
modifications ought to be researched also in the larger European context.

9

Fairclough (1995: 51) argues that there has been a “shift towards greater informality and more
conversation-like ('public-colloquial') discourse” in media which “of general changes in social
relations and cultural values which have been discussed in terms of individualism” and affect
“relations of authority, relations between public and private domains of social life and the
construction of self-identity.” Furthermore, he argues that “media are shaped by the wider
society, but they also play a vital role in the diffusion of such social and cultural changes.”

5. On production and distribution
The text chosen for analysis is a film
released in 2013 directed, produced and
co-written by Annalisa Piras, journalist
and film-maker, and, as stated above, cowritten and narrated by the Italophile Bill
Emmott, former editor-in-chief of The
Economist.
The documentary is based on Bill
Emmott's book, “Good Italy, Bad Italy:
Why Italy needs to conquer its demons to
face the future”, published by Yale
University Press in 2012. It was produced
in 2012 by Springshot, an independent
production company, and shot in HD in
Italy and London during 2011 and 2012.
The duration is 89 minutes.
Fig.1 Poster of the documentary7

It has been broadcast on BBC Four (300,000 viewers), Sky Italia and La7 in Italy (combined
750,000 viewers), as well as on many other European channels and currently is distributed on
DVD and online.8 “Girlfriend in a Coma” title is derived from a British musical hit by The
Smiths (1987), while it has been marketed also with a first part of the title derived from the
7 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Giac_poster.JPG Accessed on May 23, 2013
8 Girlfriend in a Coma website - http://girlfriendinacoma.eu Accessed on May 12, 2013

10

book.

5.1 Structure of the documentary
The structure of the documentary is particularly clear. After a 10 minutes introduction, there
are three acts. The first two acts deal with the representation of what the author calls “Bad
Italy” and “Good Italy.” The third one, called “Ignavia” (Italian for 'sloth'), is the one in which
the author addresses the viewer more clearly, but this will be discussed afterwards.
The polarisation between a “Bad Italy” and a “Good Italy” effaces already from the poster of
the film as shown above (fig. 1), in which a black, 'bad' Pulcinella (Punch, a character
originated in the commedia dell'arte) has his hands on the white, 'good' emblematic Italy.
These forms of representation will be dealt more in deep in the following chapter after a
discussion on the controversy occurred during the Italian release.

6. Analysis and discussion
Instead of a shot to shot analysis, this paper will take as a starting point the controversy and
the debate surrounding the release of the documentary.
6.1 Release
The documentary was scheduled to be presented to the Italian public on February 13 2013 at
the Museum of 21st Century art (MAXXI). Two weeks before the show, following the order
from the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities, the museum cancelled the event
because it would have taken placed during the political campaign for Italy's national elections
which were due on February 24-25.9
“The premiere was to be an event to which only invited guests could attend. Those guests
were planned to include the leaders of all the political parties, as well as top businessmen,
journalists, ambassadors, interviewees from the film: you can imagine the sort of people.”10
Bill Emmott called this decision 'censorship', describing it as 'stupidity' in a message on the
9 see note 3
10 http://girlfriendinacoma.eu/our-reaction-to-the-banned-screenin/ Accessed on May 20, 2013

11

social network Twitter.11 The president of MAXXI denied the censorship allegation, saying
that it could screen after the election. What can (or cannot) surprise is the fact that the
president of the foundation, Giovanna Melandri, was among her other positions Ministry of
Cultural Heritage and Activities and member of Parliament for the Democratic Party, main
political opponents of Berlusconi (who is heavily criticised in the documentary).
In another message, Emmott, writing from the second of the two screenings, said: “qui troppa
propaganda e ignavia ('Here's too much propaganda and sloth')”. 12 Nonetheless, screenings
took place before the elections and the film was available for (pay to) download on the
Internet.
Some excerpts from an interview can shed some light on the purpose of the author:
“Eamonn Fitzgerald: Final question: Is Italy doomed, or do you see light at the end of the
tunnel?
Bill Emmott: There will be light when Italians really face up to the reality of their
situation.”13
As Nichols (2001:18) argues, “the institutional framework for documentary suppresses much
of the complexity in the relationship between representation and reality, but it also achieves a
clarity that implies documentaries achieve direct, truthful access to the real. This functions as
one of the prime attractions of the form, even if it is a claim we must assess with care.”
Is the author trying to identify his point of view on Italy as the only 'true' point of view?
Following the ban on screening at the MAXXI museum, the team behind the documentary
wrote on the website: “[...] too many Italians, which especially means those in politics and in
official public positions, do not want to confront and understand the truth and reality of what
has happened in Italy over the past 20 years. Of course, our film is not the only version of that
truth. But it is an honest, independent attempt to open Italians’ eyes to the view of Italy held
by this sympathetic, affectionate foreign observer, to help Italians and foreigners alike to

11 https://twitter.com/bill_emmott/status/297369571399188480 Accessed on May 22, 2013
12 https://twitter.com/bill_emmott/status/302309000752541697 Accessed on May 22, 2013
13 Eamonn Fitzgerald (20 February, 2013) Girlfriend in a Coma http://www.eamonn.com/2013/02/20/girlfriend-in-a-coma/ Accessed on May 22, 2013

12

understand the situation in Italy and what needs to be done about it.”14
So, the answer is “no, not the only version” but still it shows “what needs to be done about it.”
“The feeling of reality and realism is based on and serves our pragmatic interaction with the
world. Whether we communicate with grunts, with words, or by means of audiovisual media,
we need to trust certain communicators or representations as better guides for our actions and
concerns than others.” (Grodal, 2009: 270)
Here is a post published on the website dedicated to the project. Titled “Unacceptable: GIAC
banned in Italy!”, it reads “ITALY FORBIDS THE SCREENING OF “GIRLFRIEND INA
COMA ” [sic] IN ROME. LETS DO AN EMAIL BLAST TO THE GOVERNMENT AND
MAXXI TO PROTEST AND DEMAND THE REINSTATEMENT OF THE FREEDOM OF
EXPRESSION!”15 A commentator (who seems to be an Italian emigrate) wrote a lengthy
comment which received no 'official' reply.16
Therefore, the author show the need to better institutionalise the relationship between the
documentary and 'reality'. The release could have helped spread the word on the documentary,
but the cancellation of the event for the release offered other means to amplify the issues
proposed and at the same time knowledge about the documentary (especially among those
who share similar beliefs). Adopting the strategy used by the author of the documentary, a
rather provocative hypothesis will be drawn (keeping in mind the neutral concept of ideology
highlighted above). Could be this documentary considered to be employing any form of
propaganda? or, to better formulate, what forms of persuasion can we trace when, for
example, facts are presented?
14 http://girlfriendinacoma.eu/our-reaction-to-the-banned-screenin/ Accessed on May 20, 2013
15 Unacceptable: GIAC banned in Italy! - http://girlfriendinacoma.eu/giac-banned-in-italy-help-us-to-protest/
Accessed on May 23, 2013
16 “Quite frankly, I would call this DISINFORMATIA, a sort of misguiding information. First of all, there is no
ban in Italy, reading tonight Italian newspapers, but a ban from MAXXI, i.e. the Ministry of Culture as
officially denied any ban and on the contrary Giovanna Melandri, director of MAXXI, has taken
responsibility for the decision. Now, one may like the decision or not, but each country has its laws, right or
wrong as they can be judged from outside, and in Italy – because the political positions are so extreme –
before the elections the laws requires “par-conditio” in the political debate, in particular in television, public
or private. This of course doesn’t stop private organisations to, for instance, show a movie that take one side
or another. However, public organisations funded by the taxpayer, such as MAXXI, naturally should
maintain a neutral position, should stay outside the political competition. Surely your movie can be shown in
cinemas around the country owned by private cinema chains and alike. [...] Instead, you present one specific
view of Italy. This is course entirely legitimate, but clearly subject to political controversy [...]”

13

Some writers argue that in propaganda the emotional appeal has more importance than the
intellectual appeal17, and that “propaganda is concerned with attitudes of love and hate”.
(Lasswell, in Welch, 2003:318)
6.2 Documentary
“Some documentaries set out to explain aspects of the world to us. They analyze problems
and propose solutions. They seek to mobilize our support for one position instead of another.
Other documentaries invite us to understand aspects of the world more fully. They observe,
describe, or poetically evoke situations and interactions.” (Nichols, 2001: 251) As it should
seem clear even thanks to the author's intentions showed online, with this documentary the
author tries to do both. If we understand politics not in a narrow way, i.e. party politics, but as
“a broader concept that refers to the manner in which we constantly constitute the social in
ways that exclude other ways” (Jorgensen and Phillips, 2002: 36), it will not be hazardous to
consider the author as taking the role of a political activist.
The examination of the documentary will continue with the analysis of the introduction,
followed by the polarisation upon which is constructed.
The modes used by the author in this documentary are intermingled one another and often
overlapping. Examples from the introduction will be provided. The documentary starts in
Florence. A narrator is speaking and addressing the viewer, says: “Imagine you have have a
girlfriend, and she is Italy. You love her deeply, but she is in a coma. She has been sick for a
long long time.” After a few observational seconds, here he introduces the poetic mode which
will be present throughout the documentary: he holds a newspaper in his hands, and closeups
with photographs of Berlusconi are shown when he says “she has been sick.”
As Fowler and Kress (1979) argue, “in some discourse all the agentive participants are
abstract nouns, often complex nouns which are derived from sentences or parts of sentences
by nominalization.” This is the case of Bad and Good Italy, as the narrator explain: “Good
Italy, beautiful, full of promise, has been knocked out by Bad Italy, selfish and cruel. I've
come here to find out why, with a little help from an old friend, Dante Alighieri who has seen
17 Welch, 2003

14

this [...] 700 years ago.”
Excerpts from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, read by the actor Benedict Cumberbatch,
and the animations, by the artist Phoebe Boswell, provide a fil rouge that poetically describes
or explain the commentary, following the narration. Alongside the division in acts (and the
other similarities with the Divine Comedy), the (countless) visual associations and the songs,
these are the poetic tools.
Nonetheless, from acoustemological research, Have (2010:56-57) argues that “the critical
perspective still takes for granted that there is some kind of “uncoloured” reality behind the
audiovisual presentation that we should strive for; that it is possible to reach a point where we
are not manipulated. But does such a point exist? Music as a communicative device is meant
to have some kind of effect on the listener. Emotions and moods are an essential part of this
effect. When emotional experience stays un-reflected, we talk about manipulation and
seduction. In contrast, words like persuasion and conviction are related to rational and logical
communication. All four concepts imply an activity, where the receivers’ attitudes or
behaviours are to some degree changed. But manipulation and seduction imply some kind of
(preceding) resistance of the receiver (the one being seduced or manipulated).”
The first extract from Dante's work compares the present situation of Italy with the one when
the poet was living in: “Ah, abject Italy, you inn of sorrows, you ship without a helmsmen in
harsh seas, no queen of provinces, but of bordellos!” The association with the scandals
involving Berlusconi could be quite clear even for a foreigner.
Another association presented (and evoked) is between the narrator (and maybe the viewer
who imagined Italy as his/her girlfriend) to the poet: the figure of Dante appear from his tomb
and visits Vittorio Alfieri's one, where with his touch brings to an animated life the statue of
the Italia turrita (Italy with towers on his head) (fig. 2). She starts crying, he consoles her, but
soon another figure appears (fig. 3), the personification of “bad Italy”, who starts beating
“good Italy.”

15

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

The political stance of the narrator towards Berlusconi is clear to the viewer watching the
documentary because of the context and the associations shown before, but it will become
abundantly clear when the narrator explains his personal starting point: “It all began in 2001,
when I was editor of The Economist. We looked at Italy, and we were shocked. Corruption,
private power, media domination. Our precious capitalism was destroying something even
more precious... democracy.”
“So I set out to make sense of it. I had a nasty feeling that Italy was an early warning of the
West's decline, too.” This sentence is emblematic for the identification of the audience. They
will witness the worse and the best of the human capacities, but they too are in danger. This
identification is most prominent in the third act.
“I was surprised that Italians didn't seem to mind a foreigner speaking frankly, even when I
was just saying the bleeding obvious” Here he emphasises his own involvement and at the
same time he wants the viewer to believe that what he is saying is true. Bruzzi (2006:197)
argues that “reflexive documentaries, as they challenge the notion of film's 'transparency' and
highlight the performative quality of documentary, will emphasise issues of authorship and
construction.” She argues “against the uncompromised rendition of the real being an
attainable goal for non-fiction. [...] The presence of the auteur is not so problematic, for one of
the corollaries of accepting that documentary cannot but perform the interaction between
reality and its representation is acknowledgement that documentary, like fiction, is authored.”
In the interviews instead, the interviewees speak 'freely', without questions asked (at least on
screen).
After a synthesis of the year 2011 commented over archival footage, Berlusconi and his
16

“entertaining talents” returns, in “a crescendo”: “are you reassured by what Mr Berlusconi
said?” is asked to Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy during a meeting of members of the
European council. They look themselves and start smiling/laughing with the audience. “The
comic relief” as the narrator called it before the previous scene, continues: Berlusconi is
shown, singing a Neapolitan song (fig. 4). While the song is heard the video cuts to the
images of the Costa Concordia disaster. The song stops and we hear: “what are you doing,
Captain?” (from the Italian coast guard recordings) Video returns on Berlusconi, with Mario
Monti (fig. 5) while we hear the dialogue: “-You gave the order to abandon ship. I'm in
charge, now. Go back on board. Is that clear? -It's dark here. We can't see a thing. -Do you
want to go home?” The association is definitely ironic.

Fig. 4

Fig. 5

Another excerpt from the interview taken in consideration before:
“Eamonn Fitzgerald: The international press depicts Berlusconi as a gangster, a buffoon or a
Casanova, but in-depth analysis of his popularity is rare or non-existent. Is this because the
international media is unwilling to confront the fact that many Italians have very different
values to the Tuscany set, as I call liberal/leftist international commentariat?
Bill Emmott: No, I think the Italian media makes the same mistake too. They love his
showmanship, so they amplify it and connive in his use of it to cover up his real aims.”18
In the documentary the associations of Berlusconi (an “evil genius”, says Umberto Eco when
interviewed) to the 'bad' Italy are countless, as he may deserve, but the author provides also
statistics and facts about what is 'bad' in his political career (something clear even for his
supporters, showing this may be not the way to 'beat' him). Most of the facts and infographics,
though, are not related to Berlusconi. Sometimes they are complemented with animation,
18 see note 13.

17

music or the editing suggests meanings.19 Still, the amplification of Berlusconi's
showmanship, even if in a negative way, is there.
The critical stance is not limited to Berlusconi. The narrator is shown at a conference by the
President of the Republic: main parties representative and ministers of the former technocratic
government (which had not a declared political 'identity' but was supported by opposing
parties) intermingle with each others, they are the cause: “here they are, the elite who over the
past 20 years have presided over Italy's decline. They bear the responsibility for leaving my
girlfriend in a coma... for what they have done, and especially, for what they have not done”
(fig. 6). The discourse on 'bad' politicians is so pervasive and recurrent in Italy that for an
Italian it may seem trite, especially after how it has been used by the new political entity, the
Five Star Movement lead by the comedian and political activist Beppe Grillo. During this
occasion, the narrator briefly speaks with Berlusconi, shaking their hands for a good 30
seconds.
What strikes here, maybe only to a critic viewer, is not the false promise of an interview made
by Berlusconi (which, per se, could be considered yet another of his false promises or just
'normal' in politics and life), but his reply: “We all have to play our part” to which the narrator
replies “yes, of course” as showed below in figure 7.

Fig. 6

Fig. 7

Reprising Nichols (2001: 8), he discusses the common sense statement that “documentaries
are about real people” rephrasing it as “documentaries are about real people who do not play
or perform roles.” He argues that, “instead, they 'play' or present themselves. They draw on
19 “Argumentation may be persuasive because of the social opinions that are "hidden" in its implicit premises
and thus taken for granted by the recipients” (van Dijk, 2001: 358)

18

prior experience and habits to be themselves in the face of a camera.” Moreover, “it suggests
that individual identity develops in response to others and is not a permanent, indelible
feature. [...] In other words, a person does not present in exactly the same way to a companion
on a date, a doctor in a hospital, his or her children at home, and a filmmaker in an interview.
Nor do people continue to present the same way as an interaction develops; they modify their
behaviour as the situation evolves.” Even if he writes about an individual identity, he is
dealing about documentaries, and draws from common sense, the similarity to the
understanding of identity in discourse theory is remarkable.
The narrative continues with the narrator paying visit to Signorelli's frescos in the Orvieto
cathedral, symbol “of the desire for morrow's rebirth, for thinking in new ways, for Italy then
was divided and fractured, corrupted and dispirited, just as it is today. That was the Italy that
angered Dante.” He continues: “Europe's greatest poet united Italians for the first time in their
own language”, a language which only few speak at the time of the unification.20
After admiring the frescos while listening to 'Nessun dorma' the narrator “began to wonder
what vices Dante would name today, and what virtues, so I went on my own personal journey,
to find out. Of course it would send me straight to hell.” Here begins the representation of the
'bad' Italy.
“When we foreigners enter the corridors of Italian power, we're told we will be baffled, but
the truth is easy to see, and it's ugly. 20 years have passed since the huge corruption scandal
Cleaning hands, the political hands are now dirtier than ever. It's so different from 150 years
ago. Then the heroes of unification: Cavour, Garibaldi, Mazzini were patriots who devoted
their lives to radical action and public service: what would they think of today's politicians?
Devoting their lives to timidity and 'self' service?”
The identification of narrator with Dante is not subtle, as argued above, but this paper
proposes another identification, one with Giuseppe Mazzini. After the unification he wrote:
“There is no man who can understand how unhappy I feel when I see increasing year by year,
from a materialistic and immoral government, corruption, skepticism about the benefits of
20 Clark, M. (1998) The Italian Risorgimento. New York: Addison-Wesley Longman.

19

Unity, the financial difficulties, and fade the entire future of Italy, all the ideal Italy.”21
It is clear that the author did not invent the rhetorical myths and discourses of the Italian
unification or those regarding a not so recent past, yet it is using the same devices of those
'great men'. He blames the elites of the recent past, but uses symbols that the elites have used,
because of their cultural value. These discourses, such as the patriotism and the heroism, “are
so firmly established that their contingency is forgotten. [...] Objectivity is the historical
outcome of political processes and struggles; it is sedimented discourse” (Jorgensen &
Phillips, 2002:36)
To 'truly' begin to understand how is Italy “imagined” by the author and what he may have
left behind in his examination of Italy's problems, we have to go back to theory. Nichols
(2001: 225) is aware of the 'power' of documentaries used to construct national identity:
“Constructing consensus along the lines of national identity, be it in affirmation of or in
opposition to established governments, played a defining role in the first few decades of
documentary.”
Extending the issue to the social structures and the mechanisms which are only lightly
touched, especially in the interviews, Markóva (2003:135) argues that “humans are born into
symbolic and cultural phenomena and they do not invent everything by themselves in their
individual experiences. These facts do not need to be laboured. Cultural phenomena, into
which we are born, like the modes of social thinking, collective ceremonies, social practices
and language, are transmitted from generation to generation through daily experience,
communication, collective memory and institutions, often without much individual effort and
without much cognisable change.”
The author seeks the persuasion, the mysteries, the power coming from elites and how they
influence the mass, but mostly only in the last twenty years. Nonetheless he uses persuasion.
To give an example, after the former Minister for Labour and Welfare, Elsa Fornero says that
“the image of women in the media in the last 10-15 years has been simply devastating”, a
statistics is shown, which reads: “In Italy in 2010 127 women were murdered by men, more
21 Mack Smith, D. (1994) Mazzini. New Haven: Yale University Press.

20

than the total number of mafia killings”.
After the 'bad' Italy, the narrator deals with the 'good' Italy, and some other examples are
given, such as that of “enlightened capitalism.”
“Italy pioneered capitalism 500 years ago and used it brilliantly 50 years ago.” Here too, what
has been left behind comes evident to an informed viewer: to name an example, nothing is
said about labour migration inside Italy or the strikes (and social unrest) of the Hot Autumn of
1969-70 which interrupted the miracle (and that characterised Fiat in the last few years) or
that Mafia has his hands even on food and agriculture.
The author then moves the boundary without going beyond the unification of Italy, apart from
culture (especially if can enhance the poetic mode) and an animated sequence near the end
which summarises in only one and a half minute highs and lows of Italy from the Roman
empire (fig. 8 and 9) to... Berlusconi. Naturally, we have to consider that the target is also
foreign people, which, in this case, may be a good starting point to know about Italy.

Fig. 8

Fig. 9

Is this then just a case of a “bad Italy” versus a “good Italy”? Where and who are the others
after all these examples? The third act deals more closely with the one the purposes of the
documentary, as the author tries to reach and call the audience into action. How?
The narrator reaches lake Pellicano after his journey, and says: “my beautiful girlfriend is in a
coma, and it's terrible to watch. Everyone knows she is, but no one does anything about it.” In
the water of the lake stands a grey multitude of figures, which do not speak, hear, see or do

21

anything for the 'good Italy' beaten up by the 'bad Italy' (fig. 10). The first segment deals with
the “ignavia” (sloth), mainly of the Catholic church, the second with the Italian “diaspora”
(fig. 11).

Fig. 10

Fig. 11

“The number one Italian sin is sloth because it's the sin that's most hidden. It seems less of a
sin because people say, 'I didn't take a stand, I didn't do anything.' So it's the easiest sin for us
to absolve”, says Marco Travaglio, deputy editor of Il Fatto Quotidiano.
After having blamed the elite for the levels of partisanship and polarisation22 (which is
discussed before talking about violence in the 60s), now it is time instead to do something
soon: “[...] there's still a great need today to name and shame people [...]” says actor Toni
Servillo.
A more uplifting music characterises the interviews with Italians abroad. Here and in the
conclusion, the narrator tries to speak to both parents and children, Italians and not Italians,
those who already emigrated and those who may or will have to.
The narrator returns back to London and comments: “Italy must wake up or else become just
an impoverished tourist park.” Then he speaks to those from the Western countries, which are
specifically addressed by the narrator: “All of us westerners face decline too. We have also be
letting the immorality of a few damage the many amid our own Dante 'ignavia'. We too need
the courage to say basta ('enough') or we'll commit the worst of sins, betraying our own
children.”
22 “One of the biggest problem of the last few years was this hyper-partisanhip, hyper-polarisation of the society
and of the politics.” said by Mario Calabresi, Chief Editor La Stampa

22

After a 'spontaneous' conversation with two children, Dante comes back (in full force) for the
final sentence “if the present world has gone astray, in you is the cause, in you it's to be
sought.”

7. Conclusion
The identification with Dante and the Divine Comedy is probably the best way to explain this
documentary: a work which is political (in the full sense), dichotomic, yet personal (in its
anger), artistic and full of religious and rhetoric tropes.
It may not be unconclusive to say that the author made little effort to place the problems he is
dealing with into a historical perspective. The generalised arguments about the present
condition are or seem supported by facts, but the knowledge on the reasons, on why 'she is in
a coma', seems to be poorly researched and depending on the poetic mode. He has talked even
with the people that in his opinion are responsible, but it seems that the problem, the 'bad
Italy', is always somewhere else, someone else, the other who is not us, which may advice 'us'
that the focus on discourses and ideologies is as important as ever.

8. Bibliography
Blondel, J. & Thiébault, J. L. (2010) Political leadership, parties and citizens, the
personalisation of leadership. London: Routledge. pp. 172-189
Bruzzi, S. (2000) New Documentary: A Critical Introduction. London: Routledge. Standard
pages: 340
Fairclough, N. (1995) Media Discourse. London & New York: Arnold. Standard pages: 200
Fowler, R. & Kress, G. (1979) Critical linguistics. In Fowler, R., Hodge, B., Kress, G. &
Trew, T. (1979) Language and Control. London, Boston, Henley: Routledge and
Kegan Paul
Grodal, T.(2009) The Experience of Audiovisual Realism. In Embodied Visions: Evolution,
Emotion, Culture and Film. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 15 May. 2013, from
http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195371314.001.0001/acprof
-9780195371314-chapter-12 Standard pages: 25
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Hallin, D. C., & Mancini, P. (2005) Comparing media systems. In Curran & Gurevitch (eds.)
Mass Media & Society. London: Hodder Arnold pp. 215-233 Standard pages: 20
Have, I. (2010) Attitudes towards documentary soundtracks – Between emotional immersion
and critical reflection. In MedieKultur 2010, n. 48, 48-60 Standard pages: 12
Marková, I. (2003) Dialogicality and Social Representations Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press. pp. 118-146 Standard pages: 25
Nichols, B. (2001). Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Standard pages: 230
Jorgensen, M. & Phillips, L. (2002) Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse theory. In Discourse
Analysis as Theory and Method. London: Sage. pp. 24-58
Ponech, T. (1997) What is Non-fiction Cinema?. In Allen, R. & Smith, M. (eds.), Film Theory
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-9780198159216-chapter-9
van Dijk, T.A. (1998) Ideology: A Multidisciplinary Approach. London: Sage. Standard
pages: 420
van Dijk, T.A. (2001) Critical discourse analysis. In D. Schiffrin et al (eds.) The Handbook of
Discourse Analysis. Oxford: Blackwell, 352-371, from
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Welch D. (2003) Propaganda, Definitions of. In Propaganda and mass persuasion, a hystorical
encyclopedia. pp. 317-323 Santa Barbara: ABC CLIO 6 standard pages

8.1 Filmography
Springshot Productions (2012) Girlfriend in a coma. United Kingdom.

24