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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


Antonio Monachello (fcb642) curriculum: Media Studies (M.A.) 2008 mob.: 50146326

On exactitude in media - Girlfriend in a coma

Table of contents


1. Introduction


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


3. Theory


3.1 Film and media studies


3.2 Critical discourse analysis and discourse theory


4. On the sociopolitical context


5. On production and distribution

11 5.1 Structure of the documentary

11 6. Analysis and discussion


6.1 Release


6.2 Documentary


7. Conclusion


8. Bibliography


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 - Accessed on May 12, 2013

3 (2013, February 3) Vivarelli, N. In Italy, cries of censorship over Berlusconi docu Accessed on May 12, 2013

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

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. 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

This mode bears a close proximity to

passages, and formal organization. [


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 avant- garde, 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

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:


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

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.”

goals. [


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:


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"

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

between micro and macro approaches [



the group or culture as a whole. Both types of cognition influence interaction and discourse


individual members, whereas shared "social representations" govern the collective actions


a group.”


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 non- Marxists 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)

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 [

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.


Thus, if

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

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.

resources [


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 “[

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

movies cannot be assumed


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.”

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.

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, co- written 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.

and London during 2011 and 2012. The duration is 89 minutes. Fig.1 Poster of the documentary

Fig.1 Poster of the documentary 7

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

8 Girlfriend in a Coma website - Accessed on May 12, 2013


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

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: “[

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


too many Italians, which especially means those in politics and in

13 Eamonn Fitzgerald (20 February, 2013) Girlfriend in a Coma - Accessed on May 22, 2013

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?

15 Unacceptable: GIAC banned in Italy! - 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. [

view of Italy. This is course entirely legitimate, but clearly subject to political controversy [


Instead, you present one specific


Some writers argue that in propaganda the emotional appeal has more importance than the intellectual appeal 17 , 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

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.”

Fig. 2 Fig. 3 The political stance of the narrator towards Berlusconi is clear to

Fig. 2

Fig. 2 Fig. 3 The political stance of the narrator towards Berlusconi is clear to the

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


“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 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).


The presence of the auteur is not so problematic, for one of

After a synthesis of the year 2011 commented over archival footage, Berlusconi and his

“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.

want to go home?” The association is definitely ironic. Fig. 4 Fig. 5 Another excerpt from

Fig. 4

to go home?” The association is definitely ironic. Fig. 4 Fig. 5 Another excerpt from the

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.

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

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.

girlfriend in a coma

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.

replies “yes, of course” as showed below in figure 7. Fig. 6 Fig. 7 Reprising Nichols

Fig. 6

“yes, of course” as showed below in figure 7. Fig. 6 Fig. 7 Reprising Nichols (2001:

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)

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

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.

feature. [


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.

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. [

outcome of political processes and struggles; it is sedimented discourse” (Jorgensen & Phillips, 2002:36)

Objectivity is the historical


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.

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

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.

empire (fig. 8 and 9) to

starting point to know about Italy. empire (fig. 8 and 9) to Fig. 8 Fig. 9

Fig. 8

point to know about Italy. empire (fig. 8 and 9) to Fig. 8 Fig. 9 Is

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

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).

the second with the Italian “diaspora” (fig. 11). Fig. 10 Fig. 11 “The number one Italian

Fig. 10

second with the Italian “diaspora” (fig. 11). Fig. 10 Fig. 11 “The number one Italian sin

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 polarisation 22 (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


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

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

-9780195371314-chapter-12 Standard pages: 25

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 and Philosophy. : Oxford University Press. Retrieved 17 May. 2013, from

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

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.