The resistible rise of Beppe Grillo

Digital populism in Italy.


“If we rely on a fictional account of the world when making decisions then the authors of the fiction have a better claim to be in charge than we do.” (Dan Hind, A Programme of Media Reform)

That acting skills have become one of the most valued assets in politics isn't big news. During the recent US presidential campaign, for instance, the sudden rise in Mitt Romney’s popularity was triggered by his brilliant performance during a presidential debate whose political content was, well, hardly a subject of debate. Nonetheless, the professions of politician and actor are still considered to be distinct, with Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger being notable exceptions. But this may fast be becoming an outdated distinction. In Italy, a comedian is leading a new political movement that is sweeping the already disfigured domestic political landscape. But there is nothing to laugh about; quite the contrary.

Beppe Grillo has risen from the status of mediocre comedian to that of political leader in an escalation of digital populism that threatens to garner his party around 100 of the 630 seats in the lower house of the Italian parliament at the next election. Grillo, the founder of the Five Star Movement (M5S), has been running a mostly internet-based political campaign through the party's blog and the local groups that have emerged from it. The movement has a strong anti-politics agenda - all political parties are crooked, the argument runs, and they all need to go. Not especially nuanced, but exactly the kind of populist rhetoric that disillusioned and apathetic Italian voters are buying into. Never mind that Grillo has recently opened the doors of his movement to the candidacy of members belonging to the neo-fascist organization Casa Pound.

The comedian-turned-politician is the undisputed leader of his movement, yet he won’t himself run for the presidency. He is more of a choreographer. The copyrighted symbol of the M5S belongs to him and a recent wave of summary purges among the movement’s ranks should leave no doubts as to who is in supreme command. Behind the barker is an even more sinister figure, the internet entrepeneur Roberto Casaleggio.

Recently interviewed in the Guardian, the web guru behind the M5S, declared that “it’s like Jesus Christ and the apostles” referring to the Grillo phenomenon - an apt characterisation of a movement that has more in common with a religious cult than a political party. Coincidentally, Grillo starred in a film called Looking For Jesus in 1982, directed by Luigi Comencini and scripted by Silvio Berlusconi’s televisual ideologue Antonio Ricci (more of whom later). 

Casaleggio is one of those cyber-evangelists Steven Poole described in a recent article in the New Statesman as “dreaming of a perfectible electronic future and handing down oracular commandments about how the world must be remade.” He is the one who suggested the comedian should open a blog where to proselytise fearful and exasperated netizens only too willing to throw the proverbial first stone and join the next virtual pogrom. Casaleggio claims that the internet is tearing down the wall between the state and citizens, thereby allowing a more direct form of democracy. Hardly. The M5S’s battle is in fact aimed at entering the corridors of power to replace “those thieves” rather than creating an alternative political system based on different, fairer principles. It is not the system itself that is wrong, but those who run it, the movement's rhetoric implies. Give me power, runs Grill's implicit pitch, and I’ll fix everything. How? Well, the movement has a statute written by Casaleggio and Grillo whose rules cannot be changed. If you don’t like them go elsewhere, found your own movement.  M5S's rigid hierarchy is also evident in Grillo’s categorical refusal to engage in televised debate (the same applies to all the movement affiliates, those who did not obey were immediately expelled). True, Italian television may not be the most enlightened of political arenas but Grillo’s squeamishness is pronounced.

He is in fact the quintessential child of what Umberto Eco called “Neotelevisione”, the Trojan horse of Silvio Berlusconi. Despite the movement's flauntingof the internet as a kind of otemic fetish, commercial television is the real motor of Grillo’s success. He debuted in Berlusconi’s media empire in the early 1980s with the TV show Fantastico. It is thanks to his privately owned TV channels and its programmes that Berslusconi exerted power, and Grillo is simply one of his apostles, though now animated by patricidal ambitions.

Pivotal to Berlusconi’s  influence and commercial innovations is Antonio Ricci (creator of Fantastico), a man who, in Variety’s words, “with his penchant for comedy and variety, changed the face of Italian television”. Indeed. If programmes had up to then mainly targeted families with quiz shows, song contests and generalist spectacles that appealed to multiple generations of viewers, Ricci’s schedule attracted a younger audience. Ricci’s programmes are a primary ingredient in the toxic infodiet of millions of Italians. That Grillo was formed professionally in this milieu should raise a doubt or two about his self-validating claims of anti-systemic purity. Grillo’s association with Ricci was not limited to television, but culminated in Ricci’s only foray into the Seventh Art, the aforementioned Looking For Jesus. Comencini’s film is about a Vatican official hunting for a photogenic messiah to be televised nationwide in order to bring peace to the troubled nation. Grillo, needless to say, plays the budding tele-messiah.

Fast-forward 20 years and Grillo is filling the  void left by Berlusconi, exploiting Italy's weak democratic traditions for his own ends. “You should be thankful that I’m here or there would probably be the neo-nazis in my place,” Grillo has declared. It was meant as reassurance, but sounded more like a threat.

Showman: Beppe Grillo addresses supporters (Photograph: Getty Images)
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The new Gilmore Girls trailer is dated, weird, nostalgic and utterly brilliant

Except, of course, for the presence of Logan. I hate you, Logan.

When the date announcement trailer for Gilmore Girls came out, an alarm bell started ringing in my ears – it seemed like it was trying a little too hard to be fresh and modern, rather than the strange, outdated show we loved in the first place.

But in the lastest trailer, the references are dated and obscure and everything is great again. In the first five seconds we get nods to 1998 thriller Baby Moniter: Sound of Fear and 1996 TV movie Co-ed Call Girl. The up to date ones feel a little more… Gilmore: Ben Affleck, KonMari, the Tori Spelling suing Benihana scandal.

As in the last trailer, the nostalgia is palpable – a tour of Stars Hollow in snow, misty-eyed straplines, and in jokes with the audience about Kirk’s strange omnipotent character. It seems to avoid the saccharine though – with Rory and Lorelai balking at Emily’s enormous oil painting of her late husband.

What does it tell us about the plot of the new series? Luke and Lorelai are still together (for now), Rory has moved on from Stars Hollow, and Emily is grappling with the death of her husband (a necessary plot turn after the sad death of actor Edward Herrmann). In fact, Emily, Lorelai and Rory are all feeling a bit “lost”: Emily as she is trying to cope with her new life as a widow, Lorelai as she is questioning her “happy” settled life in Stars Hollow, and Rory because her life is in total flux.

We learn that Rory is unemployed and living a “rootless” or “vagabond” existence (translation: living between New York and London – we see skylines of both cities). But the fact that she can afford this jetset lifestyle while out of work, plus one plotline’s previous associations with London, points worryingly to one suggestion: Rory and Logan are endgame. (Kill me.) This seems even more likely considering Logan is the also the only Rory ex we see in a domestic setting, rather than in a neutral Stars Hollow location.

As for the other characters? Jess is inexplicably sat in a newsroom (is he working at the Stars Hollow Gazette?), Lane is still playing the drums (we know a Hep Alien reunion is on its way), Sookie is still cooking at the inn (and Melissa McCarthy’s comedy roles seem to have influenced the character’s appearance in the trailer’s only slapstick moment), Paris is potentially teaching at Chilton, Dean is STILL in Doose’s Market, Michelle is eternally rolling his eyes (but now with a shiny Macbook), Babette and Miss Patty are still running the town’s impressive amateur theatre scene, and Kirk is… well, Kirk.

The budget, context and some of the camerawork has evolved (the show’s style of filming barely changed excepting the experimental season seven), but much remains the same. For me, it’s the perfect combination of fan service, nostalgia, and modernisation (except, of course, for Logan. I hate you, Logan) – and seems to remain true to the spirit of the original show. Bring on 25 November!

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.