Stephen Smith

God is screening one of his satirical shorts the morning I arrive in Rome. The rail-link between the international airport and the city centre, which has been expensively revamped, or at least remarketed, shimmers me to the first stop, Ponte Galeria, and then breaks down. The power is out all along the line, says the guard. Trains are marooned to the front of us and behind, like the ghosts of journeys past and yet to come. A party of oriental tourists, their Roman stopover originally windowed for a leisurely seven hours, gives up all thought of the Colisseum. When the current eventually comes back on, they file glumly onto the down-line platform. The guard looks at them and shrugs. He says, ‘Well, today is the 17th,’ a reference to the day that the Italians, a Christian people if ever there was one, unaccountably plump for over the 13th as the blackest in their calendar.

If this were a movie shot at Cinecittà, the critics would complain that the studio had been laying on the subtext with a paletta. Late trains, for Pete’s sake, in the country where the reliability of the railway timetable was once the best thing to be said for the place. Moreover, this go-slow occurs on the eve of elections likely to benefit the successors of Italy’s Fat Controller himself. Finally, there is the guard, clearly an Italian Everyman. He just shrugs and blames bad luck.

As it happens, even a low-budget project like this would probably be nixed by the Cinecittà, accountants. As Italy struggles to emerge from its deepest recession since the Second World War, almost the only film in production on the Rome back-lots is a spoof of Jurassic Park. To its backers, the chief attraction of this remake is that the species to be reconstituted from primeval amber is the relatively unexotic chicken.

Outside the cinema, Italians are being assured that political dinosaurs are also giving way to a less menacing breed. Among more than three thousand leading citizens under suspicion of graft are hundreds of politicians. Accused of accepting backhanders in return for steering contracts in the direction of supportive businessmen, they are set to forfeit immunity from prosecution if they lose their seats in the poll on 27 March. It’s thought that as many as a third of Italy’s 630 deputies will be voted out. Just to be named by the investigators of Operation Mani Pulite is politically the kiss of death. Conversely, it’s assumed that those whose files have not been pulled by the police after two years of inquiries must be in the clear. ‘We had been troubled for a long time by the doubt about who was a monster and who was not,’ Calvino said at one point in ‘The Origin of the Birds’, ‘but for some time the question could be regarded as settled: those of us who are here are non-monsters, whereas the monsters are all those who could be here but are not, because the succession of cause and effect has clearly favoured us, the non-monsters, rather than them.’

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