Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Christ Stopped at Taranto
L´Espresso - December 2, 2012

A joke journalists like to tell is that when arriving in a foreign country you should write your book about it within a month. From then on, what once looked clear will feel far more complex, and your eyes will become blurred by love or even hate. With me and Italy it has been different. To write two books and now a film I have travelled on a long Italian journey, but that journey has made things clearer and simpler for me, not more complex. What they have also become, however, is darker and more pessimistic.

My new documentary film, Girlfriend in a Coma, which will have its first screening in London on November 26th, shows that the joke does apply in one sense: I have fallen in love. Foreigners have often been enamoured by Italy, but my love has also come with exasperation, right from the start. Accordingly, the film sets out to show how Italy’s huge potential has been thwarted for the past 20 years, beaten into submission by the forces of corruption, illegality, selfishness, cronyism and, saddest of all, complacency and ignavia.

For the message is that Italy is not just in an economic or political crisis like other nations. It is in a coma. Yours is a beautiful country, not as in the boring “Bel Paese” cliché but because of the way Italians’ individual energies, enthusiasms, creativity and entrepreneurial instincts blend with a powerful community spirit and family loyalty, of which many other Europeans are jealous. Yet those virtues, which served you so well in the postwar decades, have become overwhelmed. Italy has been put into a coma by Italians themselves. It is not just an economic malaise. It is a moral malaise.

Formally, the film is of Italy seen from abroad, through my English eyes. But in reality the journey, and so the film, are more about my ears than my eyes. The reason my feelings about Italy have become darker and more pessimistic is, essentially, because I have listened to more and more Italians. It is their voices that dominate this film, not mine, their emotions, their hopes and their despair.

Girlfriend in a Coma will, I hope, be thought of in a similar way to the notorious articles in The Economist eleven years ago about Silvio Berlusconi being “unfit” that began my affair with Italy. What those articles did was to take known, public information and to show what it all added up to. They connected the dots, they showed the pattern, the bigger picture, the wider significance of what was happening. That is what I, and the film’s Italian director, Annalisa Piras, have tried to do in this documentary. 

During the journey I learned three big things. The most shocking learning, but one that was actually quite symptomatic of all the others, came in the deep south, in Taranto. We filmed there in February, when it was unusually cold for Magna Grecia but life was becoming hot for the giant Ilva steel plant as Judge Patrizia Todisco was opening her case against Ilva and its owners, the Riva Group, for environmental crimes.

Now, and especially over the past few months as Judge Todisco has sought the plant’s closure, everyone knows about Ilva. The national government has squirmed about the trade-off between lives and jobs, and local governments have tried to evade responsibility. But what shocked me, back in February, was how little people knew about it then, and how little they seemed to have cared about it for the previous 50 years.

By “people” I mean people in the rest of Italy. Researching the background to the Ilva case, and to the report about deaths caused by pollution that was commissioned by the judge from independent medical experts, what was shocking to me was how little coverage and interest there had been in the national media. To listen to the citizens of Taranto talking about the pollution they were living with was to listen to the despair of those who felt unheard, uncared about, and above all trapped.

What do you think visiting and filming in Taranto reminded me of? It reminded me of a visit to a Chinese city, one in which pollution from a factory right in the middle of the metropolis is causing suffering, but where protesting citizens feel they are being ignored both by politicians at all levels and by the national media. It wouldn’t be a surprise in modern China. It was a shock in modern Europe.

Part of this shock was the direct one, about pollution and political neglect of it in a European city. The Taranto pollution is a failure of capitalism, certainly, but even more than that it is a failure of government and of politics, for in Europe it is those that we rightly expect to regulate capitalism and to protect us from its worst consequences.

Yet there was also an indirect shock, which in fact was the wider lesson: it was about denial and about the evasion of reality. This was the second big thing that I learned during my journey. I already knew that people had long  been avoiding the truth about Italy’s decline, and especially during the past decade. But what surprised me, given the financial crisis of 2011 and the transition to the Monti government, was that this was still going on.

It is especially evident in economic matters. Time after time, I have heard false “facts” being quoted to show that the situation is really not too bad. For example, that Italian household savings are high, so that the public debt can easily be financed (the savings rate has fallen sharply in the past decade). That it is all fine because families are rich (yes, they own property, but that makes them like the declining British aristocracy in the last century, who had capital but no income, so that the only option was eventually to sell the capital). That Italy can rely on its brilliant manufacturing (it now accounts for just one-sixth of GDP; Italy’s real problem is its outdated service industries, which are crippled by blockages to competition, to merit, to creativity).

This desire to hold tight to old but false realities, because they are comforting, is understandable. We all like to do that, in all our countries. Where Italy is exceptional, however, is in the way that discussion about the economic reality seems stuck in the 1970s. Perhaps this should not be surprising for a country in which almost the same proportion of workers are in trade unions as in 1970, while the proportion has halved in two other great manufacturing nations, Germany and Japan. But it leaves the country arguing forever about laws and rights and too little about the creativity, innovation and enterprise that create jobs in the first place.

Travelling around the country, it felt as if Italy was a massive, even powerful computer with great hardware that had failed to modernise its software. It is surely time for Italy to click “yes” to one of those regular, rather annoying prompts to download a new set of updates for the 21st century.

Of course, on any such journey, whether in a mini-bus with a camera crew or simply surfing around the internet, one finds plenty of people who know that changes must be made. There seem to be more “manifestoes” for what needs to be reformed than there are Italians. What there is too little of, however, is agreement about what stands in the way of these reforms: what attitudes, what practices, and above all which powerful interest groups are blocking progress and national revival.

This was the third thing I learned from my Italian journey. The problem is not one of finding policies or reforms. It is one of achieving consensus on what are the obstacles to reform, to justice, to opportunity, to growth. And this vital consensus is more elusive than ever as Italy becomes more divided and fractured and litigious while the screen freezes and nothing moves.

It is this sense of urgency and emergency that has prompted me to think that what I learnt during my film should not stop at the words “The End”. So on our film’s website,, we have decided to begin a debate, among Italians at home and abroad, about what and who are the real obstacles to the vital national software update. Like the film, this is done in the hope that as an outsider my views could form a kind of mirror in which all Italians can see themselves as they are seen by people abroad who don’t care about who is communist or not (and no I have never been one nor you can ever realistically think that I am a leftie) and so on, but who care only about the future of Italy.

To start off this debate, I offer my thoughts about who are the sinners, the blockers. Yet Italians’ own views on this would be much more expert and more valuable. Please come and tell me. Italy can be woken up from its coma. By you.


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