ROME A new Italian film portrays a flashy politician who loves easy sex and hates justice, but with the real prime minister embroiled in a prostitution scandal, critics say political reality is looking stranger than fiction.
The comedy "Qualunquemente" hits Italian theatres this week, just as Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi battles a growing storm over allegations that he paid for sex with prostitutes. He says the charges are absurd and dreamt up by biased magistrates.
The film revolves around "Cetto La Qualunque," a small-time fugitive who returns to his hometown in the southern region of Calabria and runs for mayor to combat what he considers a dangerous wave of law and order sweeping the coastal town.
Flanked by half-naked women, Cetto goes on the campaign trail with the intentionally shocking slogan "I have no dream, but I like pussy."
Off the trail, Cetto parties with topless women in a hot tub, frequents prostitutes and admiringly tells a bikini-clad woman: "Your lovely body qualifies you for town councillor."
Coming just as Italy grapples with leaked accounts of wild "bunga bunga" parties at Berlusconi's home with prostitutes procured by a showgirl-turned regional councillor, the film has drawn sizeable attention and more than a few snickers.
"The filmmaker assures us it is a 'very funny' film, but the truth is that there's little to laugh at because reality -- now, more than ever -- has vastly overtaken fiction," film critic Fulvia Caprara wrote in La Stampa newspaper.
"The vulgar horrors on the screen are nothing compared to those we see mentioned in the accounts leaked to newspapers."
Taking a swipe at Berlusconi after magistrates accused him of paying to sleep with a 17-year-old dancer, Alessandro Pignatiello, coordinator of the Communist-Leftist Federation said: "Cetto La Qualunque in comparison is just an amateur."
Popular comedian Antonio Albanese, who co-wrote the script and stars as Cetto, says the character was not influenced in the slightest by Berlusconi or any other political figure. Indeed, the character was first created for a television show in 2003.
"I wanted to explain our country. It has disappointing things," he told reporters. "But by making it funny, we can make the next generation understand that these people are ridiculous, that they are bad examples."
As Cetto, Albanese offers a shocking -- but entirely believable -- portrayal of a vulgar, small-town, southern politician who will stop at nothing to get elected.
Impeccable in purple or white-striped suits, Cetto rants against justice ("Makes me sick"), taxes ("Like drugs") and culture, preferring prostitutes, golden bathtubs and a South American girlfriend who usurps his long-suffering wife's place.
Nothing is off-limits on the campaign trail -- he hands out wads of cash to buy votes, promises to abolish electricity bills and drives hospice patients to the polling booth by bus.
Despite the filmmakers' denial of any links, some details in the film will be familiar to anyone following national politics.
When police show up at Cetto's mayoral inauguration ceremony, he accuses the judiciary of trying to subvert the popular vote -- echoing a familiar complaint by Berlusconi. The movie ends with Cetto promising a bridge will be built linking Calabria with Sicily -- one of Berlusconi's pet projects.
The title of the film, "Qualunquemente," roughly translates as "Anywayly," an invented word reflecting the main character's verbal clumsiness.
Albanese agrees the release of the film, directed by Giulio Manfredonia, came at the right time; though the steady drumbeat of sex scandals over the past couple of years meant the timing was always going to be right.
"Two years ago when we were making the movie, we said 'If only it was released now.' A year ago we said, 'If only it was released now' and then again six months ago, we said 'If only it was released now,'" he said.
"Even my father 25 years ago probably said the same thing -- after all, this is how our country is."
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)