February 16, 2008

Italy: Beppe's Inferno

On September 8th, two million people in two hundred and twenty cities across Italy celebrated V-Day, an unofficial new national holiday, the "V" signifying victory, vendetta, and, especially, "Vaffanculo" ("Fuck off"). The event had been organized by Beppe Grillo, Italy's most popular comedian, to protest endemic corruption in the national government. Grillo, a bearlike, trumpet-voiced man of fifty-nine with a pile of graying curls, is a distinctly Italian combination of Michael Moore and Stephen Colbert: an activist and vulgarian with a deft ear for political satire. Grillo led the demonstration in Bologna, appearing in the Piazza Maggiore, the city's largest public space, before a crowd of about a hundred thousand—more than had congregated there when Italy's soccer team won the World Cup the year before. He wore jeans, sneakers, and a long-sleeved black polo shirt, and stood on a stage flanked by tall black panels decorated with blood-red "V"s. Behind him, against a cloudless sky, rose the crenellated Renaissance city hall with its squat clock tower. A large screen had been erected there, projecting the names of twenty-four convicted criminals currently serving as senators and representatives in the Italian parliament, or as Italian representatives in the European Parliament. Grillo read the names aloud, in alphabetical order, together with their crimes, which ranged from corruption, perjury, and tax evasion to more inventive infractions, such as fabricating explosive ordnance and aiding and abetting a murder. The crowd booed and jeered, raising their index and middle fingers in a V, for victory, or, whenever Grillo cried "Vaffanculo," their middle fingers alone.

"Paolo Cirino Pomicino!" Grillo shouted, citing a representative from Naples. "Corruption and illegal campaign financing—for which he was promoted to the parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission! One day, Cirino Pomicino wrote me a letter, and I called him. He said, 'Mr. Grillo, you are making a fundamental mistake. You are confusing justice with politics.' " (Cirino Pomicino denied that this conversation took place.) Grillo paused. His face took on a look of wide-eyed surprise that gradually sagged into a mask of shock and sadness, then darkened into a scowl of disgust. "And I said to him, 'Va-fan-culo!' "

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