There are no second acts in American life, a famous writer once said. Probably not true. And certainly not true in the case of Italy.

Italians, and much of Europe, were wondering whether, in political terms, they might actually be in for a fourth act, in the resurrection of Silvio Berlusconi, a man who more than once has compared himself to Jesus Christ.

Three times in the last 20 years Berlusconi has been installed in the Palazzo Chigi, the residence of the Italian prime minister. Eighteen months ago he was forced out by Italy's disastrously worsening economic conditions.

A European technocrat, Mario Monti, was called in to replace him — to a huge sigh of relief in Europe's financial capitals — and to clean up the government's finances. But the man was dour and his austerity medicine harsh.

So Berlusconi bided his time, and then engineered the defeat of Monti's government and early elections. It was to be the cue for another, improbable, political comeback.

And, lo, from the political grave Berlusconi rose again. Or rather he managed to half-rise.

Berlusconi's centre-right coalition looks to have gained a plurality but not a majority in Italy's upper house, the Senate, while a boring, bald man — Pier Luigi Bersani, a former communist who had voted for many of Monti's austerity measures — led a centre-left party to the most votes in Italy's lower house and a solid lead there. (Italy’s constitution awards a bonus of 50 extra seats to the winning coalition in the lower house to help it in forming a government.)

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The man who might be premier: centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, who was hoping to control both houses of parliament with former prime minister Mario Monti's help. (Remo Casilli / Reuters)

But like Berlusconi, Bersani — quite possibly the next resident of the Palazzo Chigi — isn't the real story of the election.

That title belongs to a foul-mouthed, anti-establishment comedian named Beppe Grillo whose Five Star Movement rose from nowhere to confound all the pundits.

Almost complete results give his movement almost 25 per cent of the vote, just behind Berlusconi's right-wing coalition in the lower house, and enough to be kingmaker if no party can gain a majority in the upper house. (Without control of both houses an Italian government can barely breathe.)

All of which would suggest fiscal Europe's worst nightmare  — a government without a mandate in its third largest economy, a parliament that can't function, and a grumpy comic grinning in the confusion.

Bazooka Beppe

All that is certain at the moment is that Beppe Grillo won't be a member of the parliament his movement has just stormed.

That's because he has a criminal record, for manslaughter in 1980, which disqualifies him from sitting.

But that doesn't seem to bother him, and it's not clear how much legislative influence he would have had anyway over a movement he maintains is "people led."

His entire election campaign was based on contempt for politicians, for the businessmen who fund them, for pundits and other Italian journalists, even for the European bosses in Brussels.

They're all, in his eyes, corrupt, beyond redemption.

"Surrender, surrender, surrender!" the 64-year comedian with the long, curling locks shouted at this elite in his final rally in front of tens of thousands of supporters. "You're surrounded. Say you're sorry!"

If they didn't surrender, Grillo offered his own version of the nuclear option — he called for al-Qaeda to bomb Rome to vaporize its corrupt political elite. Failing that, he promised to rip open parliament "like a tin of tuna" after the elections.

Another election?

Such blood-thirsty battle cries clearly touched a chord among Italians. So did his novel, almost revolutionary campaign style.

He refused official subsidies and he also refused to campaign on Italian television (much of it Berlusconi-owned), believing it to be a creature of the corrupt elite he regularly denounces.

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Not a bad showing for someone facing charges of having sex with a minor. Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right coalition may yet control Italy's powerful Senate, which would likely lead to another election not far off. (Remo Casilli / Reuters)

Instead he moved around the country in a camper van, living on food and money from supporters and broadcasting his rallies on the web.

Grillo happily calls himself a populist and his manifesto calls for a 30-hour work week, a referendum on whether Italy should stay with the euro, a maximum of two terms in parliament for any MP, and mandatory checks and public revelation of all MPs' wealth.

As the campaign progressed, disdain for this slightly lunatic fringe player turned to fear among other party leaders as Grillo's movement gained more and more support.

Bersani, the former communist, called him a danger to democracy. Berlusconi, watching his position as clown-in-chief being usurped, tried to belittle him.

"Entrusting the state to Grillo," he said, " would be like giving a computer to a three-year-old child." Grillo batted that away with a far more wounding insult, calling Berlusconi a "psycho-dwarf."

But Grillo himself has autocratic tendencies. He had a senior member of his movement expelled when she dared go on Italian television to campaign, in defiance of his directive.

That, and his enflamed rhetoric, has earned him the nickname "Italy's new Duce."

Like the old Duce, Mussolini, when he launched his own movement, Grillo insists for the moment that he's not interested in power, merely in changing the system and improving people's lives.

But how to explain Grillo's astounding rise?

A well-known political commentator offers this analysis: "See how Italy beseeches God to send someone to save her from those barbarous cruelties and outrages; see how eager and willing the country is to follow a banner, if only someone will raise it." This was Nicolo Machiavelli, writing almost five hundred years ago.

At the beginning of the last century, Mussolini raised that banner, as did Berlusconi at the beginning of this one.

Now it appears to be Grillo's turn. And if it leads to gridlock, a falling euro, rising interest rates for Italian bonds and a government unable to function, he just laughs.

"So what if the next government doesn't last long," he says. "The only governments that last are the corrupt ones."

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Something was in the air. A huge crowd, in the tens of thousands, attends the final rally of comedian-agitator Beppe Grillo in Rome on Friday. (Max Rossi / Reuters)