BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, Italians breathed a sigh of relief when their supreme court saved them from a Florida 2000 recount scenario. Outgoing center right Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi lost out to Romano Prodi�s center left Coalition, by a mere 25,000 votes. He's barely a week in the job, but Prodi already is under pressure to rewrite the media ownership laws that allowed Berlusconi to build his Mediaset empire. For now, the new prime minister says he'll focus on the stagnant economy. But the media holdings of Mr. Berlusconi have long been a sore point for many in Italy. He owns most of the private channels in the country. As leader, he also controlled the state-owned channels. And during his tenure, he didn't hesitate to fire any journalist, commentator or even satirist not to his taste. The banning of political satire from TV has a long history in Italy. From Rome, Megan Williams reports on where it still thrives and where it's going. [OVERTALK IN ITALIAN]
MEGAN WILLIAMS: It's Thursday night at a high school near the central train station in Rome. Several hundred people of all ages crowd into a dark converted garage. Exposed wiring and pipes line the walls. For many people here, it's standing room only. They've come to see this week's documentary. Gustavo Hoffer is one of the founders of Apollo Undici, his garage-cum-cultural center. Hoffer explains that because Italian TV no longer shows political documentaries, he and some others decided to offer Romans a place to come and see them.
GUSTAVO HOFFER: Basically, what we see on television is an Italy which doesn't exist, and we with our little cinema here are trying to tell the reality of Italy.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Tonight's film is "Fortza Italia!" a satirical documentary about political corruption and state control in the 1970s. It's one of the few times the film has been shown in Italy. For 28 years, it was virtually banned, and its director, Roberto Faenza, was blackballed from making movies here. [ITALIAN FILM CLIP] Faenza sits in a cramped office, tucked behind the converted garage where his movie is showing.
ROBERTO FAENZA: In Italy, we have a culture that allowed the political parties to control the most important channel of information � that is, the state television.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Until two decades ago, there were only three TV channels, all state run. Then Silvio Berlusconi, before he became prime minister, opened three private stations. With Berlusconi in control, censorship only got worse, and the biggest target has been political satirists. Those willing to stand up to the leader have been kicked off the airwaves, but as Faenza points out, a few have kept their satire going, albeit in different formats.
ROBERTO FAENZA: Such as going in the theater because you don't reach masses, the audience of television. So they leave you, they leave you survive there. [ITALIAN THEATER]
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Comedian Sabina Guzzanti is one example. Her satirical show on state RAI TV was canceled after the first episode, despite its popularity. The Italian government said her parodies of politicians weren't satire but bad taste. Guzzanti wasn't deterred, though. She took the second episode live to a theater in Rome. Fifteen thousand people showed up to see her parody of Prime Minister Berlusconi. [ITALIAN] Then Guzzanti made a documentary about being censored, which has sold thousands of DVDs. [ITALIAN]
DARIO FO [VIA INTERPRETER]: All the important theater, from Shakespeare on, is full of political situations. [ITALIAN]
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Playwright and Nobel Laureate Dario Fo was one of the first to be banned by Italian TV in the '70s when his TV skits proved too uncomfortable for the Christian Democratic party in power. [ITALIAN]
INTERPRETER FOR DARIO FO: And when I was stopped from doing satire, people would say, �Sure, go ahead and be an artist, be an actor, but leave politics alone. Just make us laugh.�
MEGAN WILLIAMS: It's the same message today. Political commentator Enzo Biaggi, for instance, had his decade-long show canceled after Oscar winner Roberto Benigni lampooned Berlusconi during a guest appearance. [ITALIAN]
MEGAN WILLIAMS: On RAI TV, Berlusconi defended the banning of Biaggi and other satirists. [ITALIAN] �I never attacked people like Enzo Biaggi,� said Berlusconi. �I attacked their behavior because they'd been criminal in their use of television.� Roberto Benigni is one of the only satirists who's been able to go after politicians like Berlusconi during guest TV performances. He told a group of reporters it's too tempting to pass up, and also good for the country. [ITALIAN]
INTERPRETER FOR ROBERTO BENIGNI: Satire is the health of society. It's democracy that whips itself. It's either against power or else it's not satire. There are some people who attract satire. And Berlusconi, I have to say, even if he didn't have power, would attract satire. Even when he was in the opposition, I used to say, �Let's hope he gets elected. It would be a gift from the gods.� [ITALIAN]
MEGAN WILLIAMS: But director Roberto Faenza says that making fun of corrupt or power-hungry politicians isn't enough, that real democracy comes when a nation accepts satire being turned on themselves as well.
ROBERTO FAENZA: Until Mussolini was alive, 99 percent of Italians were with Mussolini. Once that Mussolini fell down, nobody was a fascist any more. The day after, they were all democrats. So Berlusconi is only the tip of the iceberg, but behind Berlusconi there are masses of Italians who should be heavily criticized. Until we do this, we will never understand what's bad and what's good. [ITALIAN FILM CLIP]
MEGAN WILLIAMS: As Italians get more exposed to Italy's alternative voices through satire and theaters, movies or DVDs, their appetite is growing. Nani Moretti's just-released film "Il Caimano" � "The Alligator" - is a gripping political satire about Berlusconi, but not just. It's also a biting condemnation of Italians' passivity in the face of state control, manipulation and corruption. [ITALIAN FILM CLIP] The fact that it's been a runaway hit is a sign that Italians may now be willing to look critically at their leaders, and themselves. And Italians will know soon enough whether the new leadership sees things the same way. [ITALIAN FILM CLIP] For On the Media, I'm Megan Williams in Rome. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]