Sabina Guzzanti

Her hit television show was largely devoted to lampooning Silvio Berlusconi, and as a result it was

Admirers of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero may emerge from the cinema bewildered after seeing Viva Zapatero! This new documentary film by the Italian satirist Sabina Guzzanti has nothing very much to do with the Spanish prime minister. He earned his place in the title, though, by abolishing laws in his country that allowed him to appoint television executives. Guzzanti, along with other performers and journalists who have been censored or sacked under the reign of Silvio Berlusconi's Mediaset empire, must find themselves gazing in the direction of Spain with envy and admiration.

Berlusconi is not renowned for tolerating even the faintest whiff of ridicule. And given that the 42-year-old Guzzanti spends a large part of her professional life painstakingly applying latex, make-up, wigs and padding in order to pass herself off as Berlusconi, she was unlikely to displace Tony Blair as his new holiday chum. Perhaps her impersonation is such a hoot because the model is so monstrous to begin with; as impersonated by Guzzanti, he is casually indiscreet about his business affairs, but always in that familiar put-upon manner that makes it clear he believes himself to be a victim.

"He's a wonderful character," says Guzzanti, who is single and lives in Rome. "When you're playing him, you cannot go over the top. He has already got there before you." She first impersonated him shortly before he came to power in 1994. "I played him first as a terrifying figure, like someone out of Orwell. Gradually I made him funnier, more of a clown. He's insane, so that gave me great freedom."

Guzzanti knew she was on dangerous ground with her Berlusconi routine. In 2002, the prime minister had requested the dismissal of three television journalists who had done nothing more than cast aspersions on his integrity dur-ing the previous year's election. Even so, she was shocked when her satirical television series, RaiOt, was cancelled after just one episode in November 2003. Viva Zapatero! documents the whole sorry affair, beginning when Paolo Ruffini, the director of the TV channel Rai3, announced that he was proud of RaiOt, then that he was taking the first episode off the air, and finally that it was going ahead - all within the space of three days. But on receiving a lawsuit from Mediaset attesting "grave lies and insinuations", Rai caved in after the first broadcast. The remaining five shows are still unseen, despite a court ruling that Mediaset's concerns were unfounded as Guzzanti was working within the realms of satire, and because she did not distort the basic facts.

Suspended in this limbo, in which judicial vindication seems to have made politicians and television executives regard her as even more hazardous, Guzzanti first staged a live version of RaiOt, which attracted more than 15,000 people, and then used her experiences as the basis for Viva Zapatero! The film pulls back from Berlusconi to indict the previous, centre-left government, as well as journalistic complacency. "Italy ranks 53rd in a worldwide index of media freedom, after Benin, Ghana and Bolivia," she says in one of the RaiOt sketches. "Did you hear anything about that in the news? No. But then again, if you had, we would not rank 53rd."

She calls on expert witnesses, including Dario Fo and Rory Bremner, and reveals the extent of ignorance in Italy over satire and its objectives. This is mixed with footage in which she doorsteps the very people who curtailed her television career. It hardly matters that she is stonewalled and snubbed. By incorporating these scenes into her film, Guzzanti is inviting comparison with the cinema of Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield, which can only be beneficial to her international profile. She is guilty of the occasional self-regarding Moore-ism - "We raised hell!" she proclaims after performing her stage show - but translates her personal ordeal effectively into a wider debate on artistic freedom, without too much ego getting in the way.

In Italy, Guzzanti was already widely known before the scandal over RaiOt. "As often happens in Italy, her reputation differs dramatically across political lines," says Guido Bonsaver, who teaches Italian literature and cinema at Oxford. "Like Nanni Moretti, she's a household name among independent, left-wing circles which have been critical of the DS [Democrats of the Left] when in government. She is respected by the DS but seen as an annoying Jiminy Cricket figure. And she's absolutely despised by the right, and mainly ignored by Berlusconi's media."

Aside from her impersonations (she also specialises in sending up home-grown porn stars), Guzzanti is known because of her family. Her father is Paolo Guzzanti, a former journalist for La Repubblica, while both her brother, Corrado, and sister, Caterina, have also gone on to be comedians. "The house we grew up in was full of talk," she recalls. "We were very well-informed children, because of my father's job. I was always asking questions about politics." Guzzanti graduated from Rome's Academy of Dramatic Arts and put together her own shows in which she would perform comic monologues as four or five different characters. Over time, these were interspersed with stand-up routines, which in turn took on a political flavour shortly before Berlusconi became prime minister.

Though Guzzanti dreams of making a satirical film about the Vatican, she surely has enough incendiary material in her own family to be going on with - her father traded his left-wing credentials to become a senator in Berlusconi's Forza Italia party in 2001. She becomes noticeably less garrulous when the topic is raised. Asked if her father's position is a problem for her, she replies: "Yes." And does she discuss this with him? "There is not so much to discuss." Guzzanti's irritation at having her father brought into the argument is obvious in the film. "What must he think of you?" demands one of her disapproving adversaries, to which she snaps back: "I'm a grown woman. I don't have to ask his permission."

"My father was disappointed with that scene," she notes. "He said I should have interviewed him for the film. He didn't think it was right of Rai to drop my show, but he also said I should become a politician because what I do isn't satire. It's the same thing that everyone says in the movie. It's just another way of controlling the media. My point was to say that everyone has a right to talk about politics. That's taken for granted in other countries, but not in Italy."

Indeed, so fearful is the climate that Viva Zapatero! itself has, she claims, been virtually ignored. Only after a 15-minute standing ovation at last year's Venice Film Festival, where it was smuggled in as the "Surprise Film", did a cinema release become a possibility. "That rapturous reception was, to me, a clear sign that a good part of the left was just dying for somebody to take a more radical position," observes Bonsaver. Other similarly themed films have followed in its wake, including Moretti's Il Caimano, about the search to find an actor brave enough to portray Berlusconi.

Still, Guzzanti is disappointed that her film hasn't made a dent on Italian culture. "There's been no debate," she sighs. "The newspapers pretend the film doesn't exist, even the ones on the left." Bonsaver believes this is testament to Guzzanti's bravery in targeting the failings of the left as well as the right. "It's no masterpiece," he says, "but I think it's a courageous act of independent film-making, since by criticising the DS for its passivity, Guzzanti risked being marginalised once the left got back in power. That's why it will be interesting to see what her role and profile will be like in the next few months of the Prodi government."

She remains unrepentant about attacking the left, and ambivalent about Italy's political future. "Propagandists on the left want to put Berlusconi at the centre of everything, but he's only a symptom. It's dangerous for the public to think he is the cause, because then they will believe that everything is fine now that he's no longer prime minister. And it's a long way from being fine."

"Viva Zapatero!" is released on 21 July

Jokers wild: who satirises who, and where
By Sohani Crockett

South Africa Pieter-Dirk Uys
A cross-dressing half-Afrikaner half-Jewish satirist, Uys made his name attacking the brutality of apartheid and later the hypocrisy of white liberals. One of his characters famously said, "There are two things wrong with South Africa: one's apartheid and the other's black people." His 1996 show, You ANC Nothing Yet, featured impressions of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His latest show, Foreign Aids, attacks the government for failing to deal with the Aids crisis.

Germany Elmar Brandt
Popular comedian who hosts a satirical TV programme called Die Gerd Show. In 2002 he released the "Tax Song", which sold more than 120,000 advance copies and reached number one in the charts. The song mocked the then chancellor Gerhard Schröder for breaking election promises. Lyrics include: "Dog tax, tobacco tax, car tax, ecological tax/Did you really think that was the end of the line?/ Like a pirate hunting for income, I'll raise all your taxes/And if you're broke, you can buy your food at a discount store or go hungry."

Burma The Moustache Brothers
Two of this three-man troupe were arrested in 1996 and given seven years for performing a satirical sketch against Burma's generals outside Aung San Suu Kyi's house. On leaving prison in 2002, the group reformed and cautiously set up a small theatre in a basement, where they perform in English only.

Australia The Chaser team
Charles Firth, Dominic Knight, Julian Morrow and Craig Reucassel are founding editors of satirical newspaper The Chaser. In 2003, they famously published John Howard's telephone number on the front cover when he ignored anti-war protests. They have since started a satirical television programme called CNNNN (Chaser Non-Stop News Network) - slogan: "We report, you believe."

Zimbabwe Edgar Langeveldt
A stand-up comedian who has fallen foul of Robert Mugabe for commenting on land seizures and the economy. He has suffered intimidation, censure and a broken jaw. In 2001, he was forced to leave the country but has since returned. Using his own mixed-race minority status he tackles issues of nationality and race relations. His 2005 tour included a quiz called "Are you a true Zimbo?"

Sample question: "Your daughter comes home with a British boyfriend. Do you:
a) Wait and see what happens?
b) See it as an attempt to recolonise Zimbabwe and promote neo-imperialism?
c) Ask him what rate he is changing pounds at?

China Liu Di
Also known as "Stainless Steel Mouse". She was a third-year psychology student at a Beijing university who ran an artists' club and website, where she posted comical but critical comments on politics and the People's Republic. She was arrested in November 2002 and held for a year without charge.

Israel Shimon Tzabar
Tzabar is a journalist, author and satirist who famously published an Introduction to Israeli Prisons in the format of a Michelin guide and was promptly sued by the company. The pamphlet invited readers to "take a guided tour of Israel's prisons, concentration camps and torture chambers, by being arrested". "The safest way to be arrested," it advised, "is to look like a Palestinian Arab." Disgusted with his homeland, he now lives in London.