Agony and the Ecstasy

The hottest film in Italy right now, in just about every sense of the word "hot," is "Caos Calmo" or "Quiet Chaos." It is the story of a widower who cannot pull his life together and sits on a park bench, watching the world pass him by. Sure, one reason it's at the top of the box-office charts is controversy over a sex scene (about which more later). But the movie also touches deeper nerves. The truth is that, much like the widower, Italy is watching the world pass it by.

As recently as the early 1980s, the country's gross domestic product was on a par with Britain's, and Italy looked set to be a driving force, if not quite in the driver's seat, of a newly united Europe. But those days are long gone. Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the chairman of Fiat and president of Ferrari, likens Italian government to "a car so heavy, so expensive, so difficult to steer, so old, that whoever the driver may be, you don't win." At this point, government is not just dysfunctional, but nonfunctioning. Since left-wing Prime Minister Romano Prodi fell to a no-confidence vote in January, there's a caretaker regime marking time until new elections in April. The latest polls suggest Italy will return right-wing tycoon-showman Silvio Berlusconi to power. But that is hardly cause for optimism. The same faces have been trading places in Rome for almost 15 years as the economy has stalled and the fractious political parties have stalemated. "In Italy we are at the end of a long run," one of Prodi's close advisers said privately last week as he sat in the now half-empty offices of the prime ministerial Palazzo Chigi, "and we are all very tired."

Wherever Italians look, it seems, there are signs of rot both figurative and literal. The streets of Naples have been subsumed beneath suppurating piles of garbage for months with no solution in sight. And while Naples is stinking, Venice is sinking. Grand plans have been proposed to save the city, which is flooded nine months a year. But the 10-year multibillion-euro project put forth by Berlusconi was shelved by Prodi. Tourists overwhelm Florence, but instead of improving infrastructure, the city council is thinking of moving Michelangelo's "David" out of town to lessen the congestion. Then there's Alitalia, a fleet of albatrosses laboring under enormous debts that are emblematic of Italy's can't-do economy. In 2004 and 2005 the country's economy did not expand at all, and throughout the decade it has lagged at or near the very bottom of Europe's already torpid growth rates. Last year, Italy grew 1.8 percent, far slower than the rest of the euro zone.

Yet for all this, many Italians feel that the country still has the potential—the creativity amid the chaos—to make a magnificent comeback if only … what? "I believe a lot of people are asking themselves the same question I ask myself," says Pino Arlacchi, a former member of Parliament and senator, and a leader of the anti-mafia fight in the early 1990s: "Why have we not succeeded in turning the page in this country?"

Giulio Sapelli, one of Italy's most distinguished economic historians, cites a handful of key decisions. "The '80s were the years of great missed opportunities," he says. Unlike France—which saw the dangers of energy shortages and built a nuclear power grid that now provides 80 percent of its electricity—Italy held an emotional referendum in 1987 that completely shut down what had been a technologically advanced nuclear industry. Now it is utterly dependent on the world market for high-cost energy. Then, Italy's public debt soared as bills for the social programs it instituted in the 1970s started to come due and political parties padded out the bureaucracy with patronage jobs. "There's huge corruption," says Sapelli. Finally, in the 1980s there was the Italian lira. The government boosted the country's exports and mollified the private sector not by encouraging research, development and innovation, but by cheapening the currency.

In hindsight, says Sapelli, the dazzling GDP figures of 25 years ago were "just an illusion." Unlike Britain, which was well on its way to becoming a modern Western service economy, Italy was breathing "the last sigh of an industrial system" that was shored up "with enormous public expenditure." And by 1992, the illusion wasn't looking so grand. The revelations of the "Clean Hands" arrests and prosecutions exposed corruption in the old established Christian Democratic and Socialist parties that had traded governments back and forth for generations. They were swept out of power, their leaders prosecuted, even forced into exile—but narrow-minded venality and criminality stayed.

"I used to think corruption was all on the other side," says Arlacchi, whose political career has always been on the left. While Italy's communists and their political descendents were kept out of power during the cold war, they had high ethical standards and resisted corruption. "But in the last 20 years, it has cut across party lines," says Arlacchi over lunch in one of his favorite Rome restaurants. As if partly to console himself, he notes that Rome's left-wing Mayor Walter Veltroni, the main rival to Berlusconi in the upcoming elections, "says that he will not accept as candidates for Parliament [on his ticket] people who have a felony conviction." Arlacchi paused over the wild strawberries. "I see the expression on your face," he laughed. "But in this country, that's considered a courageous decision for a politician to make." Berlusconi, meanwhile, has been the object of numerous investigations, and only escaped convictions on some charges because the laws were changed when he was in power.

Perhaps it's to be expected that, as sociologist Ilvo Diamanti puts it, "a sterile anger" is the emotion now dominating public life in Italy, and outraged cynicism is the order of the day. With politicians talking mainly to themselves, only artists and entertainers seem to give voice to the mood on the street. The most popular political writer in the country, without question, is comedian Beppe Grillo. On his widely read blog and in public spectacles his diatribes echo the old cry from the American movie "Network": "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore"—and then some. Last September millions of people rallied around the country for Grillo's V-Day (that is, Vaff-Day, or "go f––– yourself," day). "We have nearly 80 crooks in Parliament," Grillo told NEWSWEEK over the phone from his home in Genoa. (Actually there may be more: 24 who have been convicted of various crimes, an additional 57 who have had public legal problems, plus those who've never been caught.) Grillo appeals to the outside world: "Please, invade us. Help us!"

Joking aside, a big part of Italy's problem is that it relied on outside forces too often in the past to save it from internal problems nobody dared address. It's a society so full of bureaucratic impediments and social fractures that "there is freedom only as long as you don't rock the boat," says Andrea Mandel-Mantello, chief executive of the boutique investment bank AdviCorp. Although Italians are famous as entrepreneurs, it's extremely difficult to start an enterprise, or to grow from a midsize business to a big one capable of competing globally. "There is just too much friction," says Mandel-Mantello. "It's like Rollerblading on cobblestones."

At the macroeconomic level, structural reforms are promised repeatedly, then forgotten in a system where opposition political parties, even if they are minuscule, can and do veto any major government initiative. Fiat's Montezemolo—who has headed Cofindustria, the powerful association of business leaders, for the last four years—recalls that Italy raced like crazy to meet the fiscal requirements imposed by the European Union so that it could join the euro zone in 1999. "As soon as we reached the end of the race—finally we are in the euro!—we collapsed," he says, dramatically leaning back on the sofa of his office and throwing his arms up in the air. "We did nothing. There were no fundamental and structural decisions for the future."

Italians have come to see themselves over the years as survivors. In the aftermath of World War II, says Arlacchi, "they had the mentality of people who'd been bombed." Nothing would be as bad as what went before, and it could get a whole lot better. Which it did. The 1950s and 1960s were phenomenally prosperous years of reconstruction. But then came the 1970s, which were years of terror for many Italians—especially for those who had money or were making it. The Red Brigades sowed fear everywhere, sometimes with the collusion of people in government, while gangsters as well as terrorists turned kidnapping into an industry.

The great spurt of Italian optimism in the 1980s coincided with the end of the terror, and the beginning of Italy's pre-eminence marketing world-class luxury brands including Armani and Zegna, Brioni and Valentino, Bulgari, Gucci, Prada and many more. But then, the bottom dropped out of the economy. The political scandals of the early 1990s coincided with financial stability worthy of Argentina. Only the intervention of international institutions staved off economic collapse. "They kept on buying Italian bonds," says Sapelli. "With our history of terrorism a default could have been stained with blood. They saved the country."

It's not surprising after such a history that many Italians seem to hunger for strong leadership and perhaps even a strongman. A poll last summer showed that Italians who said they'd vote for such a figure approached 90 percent. But when candidates present themselves as such, the echoes of Benito Mussolini's dictatorship are still too strong for them to find widespread acceptance. Yet with all the frustrations, there endures in Italy what might be called the dolce vita factor. People still think life is sweet. Most Italians (74 percent, according to a Eurobarometer poll last month) say they are worried about the economy. A majority (52 percent) say they think Italy is "moving in the wrong direction." But a full 71 percent of Italians say they are satisfied with their own lives when it comes to family, work and their personal future. "Italians are accustomed to a very rigid separation between their personal lives and what is going on in public," says Federigo Argentieri, professor of political science at John Cabot University in Rome. And while an utter lack of civic conscience makes the country extremely difficult to govern, Argentieri notes that the strength of the family is what allows the society to function when, as so often happens, government fails. "Everything is wrong with that," says Argentieri, "except it's what keeps Italy afloat."

"Family values" may be, in fact, one of the most complex and intractable problems for a country that Sapelli describes as "postmodern without ever having been modern." Although Italians are famously individualistic, their flamboyance is sometimes that of little boys who know they can hide behind their mothers' skirts. Stories are legion about the Italian trader in London whose mother flies there to wash his clothes each month. And it's not at all unusual for young Italians to continue living with their parents until they are in their 30s. "I believe I would kill Italian mothers," says Sapelli, joking, but with a point. "They are a formidable obstacle to economic growth." In a broader sense, the loyalty to family and the sense that protection, approval and respect exist mainly within it has helped to keep Italy a fractured nation with little sense of collective identity and little respect for the laws of the state. People see themselves as belonging to the towns or provinces where their families come from, and where their history may go back millennia, rather than as part of the nation-state that was declared to exist in the 1860s.

One of Pino Arlacchi's best-known books, "Why There's No Mafia in Sardinia," is about the ultimate expression of a family-centric society: the Sardinian culture of vendetta, in which clans mete out their own justice with no deference to any state or to any organization, including the Sicilian mafia. The mafia has tried and failed to "colonize" Sardinia, as Arlacchi notes, and has its own sense of family, of course. One of the most interesting trends in Italy over the last year, and one of the most hopeful, is the extent to which families and businesses in Sicily itself have been turning against the mafia and refusing to pay protection money. Whether the state will resist the gangsters' influence as well remains an open question. But the record is not a good one. Just last week the former regional minister of tourism in Calabria was arrested on corruption charges linked to organized crime. He denies the allegations.

Family issues are also a natural vehicle for the Roman Catholic Church, which is looking to reassert the influence it wielded in Italian politics before the humiliation of the Christian Democrats in the scandals of the early 1990s (many of which also were mafia-related). The question of abortion, which is legal for three months after conception, has become the first clear issue in the current election campaign. But the church also likes to preach to Italians about the details of their sex lives, a cause it might not have found worthwhile at times of stronger secular leadership. For instance, the Catholic Church has criticized the sex scene in "Caos Calmo" because it depicted adultery and showed sex as something other than an act of procreation.

Yet the larger controversy about the film is not so much about what is explicit as what is implicit. The star is Nanni Moretti, whose political satires and documentaries have long sought to prod the conscience of his countrymen. He plays the widower on the bench, who had saved a woman, a stranger, from drowning on the same day that, by coincidence, his wife died in an accident. He is there in the park because it is the only way he can imagine to impose order on life. He knows grief will come, but he is not sure exactly how or when, and he is frozen in place. Eventually, he meets the woman that he saved and has intercourse with her. The scene is played without music or romance. Both man and woman are almost fully clothed, and entirely focused on themselves. It is an unsettling depiction of alienation, anger, confusion and self-involvement, those very Italian emotions of the moment. And for this reason, it has resonated with the Italian people. Except for one thing: in the film, the character manages to move on. Italy has yet to find a way to do that.