VENICE (Reuters) - Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's grip on television in Italy is at the heart of "Videocracy," a new documentary looking at how his media empire has shaped information and culture in the country over 30 years.
Screened at the Venice film festival this week, "Videocracy" mixes images of scantily clad showgirls -- a regular feature on Italian television -- with news reels of Berlusconi's public appearances and interviews with real or aspiring TV celebrities.
For director Erik Gandini, who was born and brought up in Italy but now lives in Sweden, the message is clear: Italy is now a "TV-republic," embodied by Berlusconi, where entertainment and politics are intertwined.
One example of that, he says, is that a former showgirl is now Berlusconi's Equal Opportunities Minister.
"Videocracy" points to the pervasiveness of television in Italian life, which makes it in the eyes of many -- particularly young people -- a launching pad to instant fame and money.
"You get a picture of a generation which is very very obsessed by brands, by their own appearance, not interested in politics so much, nor in the world," Gandini told Reuters in an interview.
"You have a country which is culturally caught in a bubble of values which are what I call a videocracy, where image is everything," he added.
With 80 percent of Italians using their TV sets as their prime source of information, the power of television is vastly increased by the control Berlusconi exerts over it, says Gandini.
"People don't read many newspapers. Television is the media which has the biggest impact ... that's why Berlusconi is so strong," he said.
"What goes on television exists, and what is not on television does not," he added.
The 72-year old media tycoon and three-time prime minister has made a fortune out of commercial television, which he launched in Italy in the late 1970s.
His Mediaset empire owns the three largest private networks in the country. Mediaset and state television RAI's three channels -- on which Berlusconi has considerable influence as prime minister -- make up 90 percent of free-to-air television in the country.
Berlusconi denies any conflict of interest and says he has no say on Mediaset or RAI programs.
Both broadcasters have refused to air ads promoting "Videocracy," which was warmly applauded in Venice and is released in Italian cinemas Friday.
additional reporting by Ilaria Polleschi; writing by Silvia Aloisi; Editing by Steve Addison