Can Berlusconi Get His Game Face Back On?

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Giuseppe Aresu / AP

It's been two weeks since Silvio Berlusconi has shown his face in public, as he recovers from a brutal attack by a deranged man at a political rally in Milan. The prime minister says we won't see him again until Jan. 7. That would mark the longest period Berlusconi has kept himself out of the public eye since his winter hibernation six years ago, from which he emerged smiling tightly, as the first sitting world leader to ever admit to a facelift.

Reports in Italy claim that the 73-year-old billionaire plans to return to the same cosmetic surgery clinic — believed to be in Switzerland — to remove any lingering signs of the miniature Duomo allegedly hurled at him by Massimo Tartaglia from point-blank range on Dec. 13, slicing open his flesh, and breaking his nose and two teeth.

Still, Berlusconi understands the heart of politics as much as its trimmings: the lingering images of his bloodied face might very well provide the kind of sympathy-vote reinforcement to his popularity that no legislative success — or dashing good looks — could match. A poll taken last week by the Milan daily Corriere della Sera shows Berlusconi's favorable ratings had swelled to 56% from 49% in November, with some 17% of the center-left electorate now saying they have a positive opinion of the center-right prime minister. The same survey, however, showed a disturbingly high — more than 20% — number of respondents approving of Tartaglia's attack.

The paradoxical shifts in opinions provide a fitting close to what has been the most tumultuous year of the prime minister's political career. There were the public gaffes: calling President Obama "well-tanned"; getting scolded by the Queen after raising his voice at a London photo op; making German Chancellor Angela Merkel wait on the red carpet while he spoke on his cell phone. Then there was his private life: his wife of 20 years filing for divorce; her accusations that he "frequents underage females"; a Bari prostitute revealing details of several encounters at his Rome residence.

And Berlusconi's judicial woes were reignited when Italy's highest court ruled unconstitutional the law he'd pushed through Parliament to grant himself immunity from prosecution while in office. The high-point of his leadership in 2009 — his prompt response to the tragic earthquake near the city of L'Aquila — was not the sort of thing to gloat about. (But he did anyway.)

Although getting smashed in the face after a highly charged rally in Milan seemed to crown this annus horribilis, Berlusconi has called in to several television and radio programs since to declare his determination to come back stronger than ever.

The prime minister was even quick to capitalize on the coincidence of Pope Benedict XVI's being knocked down in a security breach at the Christmas Eve mass. "We must truly fight back against this factory of lies, extremism and hate," he said on the RAI state television's top newscast after a woman pulled down the pontiff as he entered St. Peter's Basilica.

As for his own accused attacker, Tartaglia, 42, who is being held in a Milan prison on charges of aggravated assault, Berlusconi said he forgives him "on a human level," but asked that the courts "make an example of him" for having targeted the country's leader.

Television and film writer Luca Martera is by no means among those who approve of Tartaglia's actions. But he's no fan of his Prime Minister either, whom he blames for keeping Italy stuck in its culture of corruption and compromise. "The attack of Berlusconi was tragicomical, like his entire personal story," says Martera. "The blood on his face was dramatic. But from a symbolic point of view, it's a bit hard to take too seriously an attack where the weapon is a miniature replica of the Duomo."

The Rome-based writer's latest project is a would-be Broadway musical about the life and times of the colorful and controversial leader. The title, Burlesquoni, is easy, but Martera has been stuck trying to figure out how the show is supposed to end.