The Caiman, Nanni Moretti’s follow-up to 2001’s The Son’s Room, is both a scathing political indictment of Silvio Berlusconi, and a bittersweet, nostalgic film about loss; the two are deeply intertwined in the Italy of the last decades.
Bruce Bonomo (Silvio Orlando) is a washed-up film-maker who achieved a certain notoriety as a producer of ‘genre’ films: in other words, B-movies such as Smutty Boots, Mocassin Assasins, Masciste v. Freud, and the infamous Cataracts, the bomb that ended his career a decade earlier. Handed a screenplay at a retrospective of his films by an anonymous young woman, Bonomo desperately seizes on the project as a way to breathe life into his own faltering existence: not only is his career a disaster but his marriage to Paola (Margherita Buy) is also falling apart. Bruce devotes himself to making The Caiman with Teresa (Jasmine Trinca), the unknown scriptwriter, failing to realise that her film is in fact a damning satire about Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s wealthiest man and former prime minister.
The arc of Berlusconi’s career in politics is traced throughout the film, itself structured as a series of vignettes, of films within a film: the over-lapping of Teresa’s script with Bonomo’s imagination, interwoven with the disintegration of his family life and the actual making of the fictional Caiman. Three different actors play Berlusconi during the course of the film, the first brilliantly realised by the impeccable Elio de Capitani. His scenes are the most mocking of Berlusconi and his reputation as an embezzler and a womanizer, a caricature who delivered populism to the masses through his media empire.
Berlusconi, whose campaign for prime minister in 1994 is criticised in the film as little more than an attempt to escape jail for fraud and tax evasion, sold himself to the electorate as an alternative to communism, exploiting the fear that the left would sweep the elections. The inter-play between the left and right in Italian politics is a crucial current running through The Caiman. Bonomo is initially dismayed to realise that he is making a ‘lefty political film’; Bonomo’s films were themselves a rally against ‘intellectualism’, populist critiques of the ‘dictatorship of auteur cinema’. He admits that he voted for Berlusconi, and it’s here that the bitterness and loss of innocence lie: the betrayal by a figure who promised Italy change, but instead became a politician better known for his face lifts and hair transplants, his tight control over Italian media and, as a result, the political spectrum.
There are paradoxes in The Caiman that add an intriguing depth to the narrative, and offer an insight into the making of the film. Bonomo and Teresa’s film is rejected by RAI, Italy’s main network (arguably under Berlusconi’s indirect control) as a ‘film not born out of urgent need’. Playing himself in the film, Moretti initially rejects the role of Berlusconi; he throws doubt on the project, arguing against telling a story that is public knowledge. Teresa is the foil, adamant that The Caiman must be made: the film is a history of contemporary Italy, and that history is Berlusconi. In the end, after another actor walks away from The Caiman for a role in a more lucrative, commercial film, Moretti does take on Berlusconi, portraying him as a chilling, arrogant politician, utterly above the law; it is the film’s most personal and gripping attack on the politician. Unlike Bonomo, Nanni Moretti is a successful film-maker, himself an ‘auteur’ and a darling of Italian cinema, and perhaps one of Italy’s few film-makers capable of making such a film.
Acerbically funny, often charming, The Caiman is a film successful in its parts, rather than as a whole. The brilliant, subtly acted performances are unquestionably the film’s strength. It is the mix of family drama and political satire that never seems quite balanced, the one detracting from the other. Released shortly before the 2006 election, which Berlusconi lost to Romano Prodi, The Caiman is nonetheless an evocative look at a country mired in disillusionment.