The event convinced Mr. Grillo that he and the army of young people supporting his campaign had the power to change Italy. “The V-Day represented a point of no return,” said Marco Canestrari, a communication consultant working with Mr. Grillo at the time. Until then, Mr. Grillo “didn’t know whether [his blog followers] were willing to stand up for a cause.”
In 2009, the comedian officially founded the 5 Star Movement. Three years later, during regional elections in Sicily, the party tapped a deep vein of popular anger that was sweeping all of Italy, then in the grips of what would be its worst economic downturn since World War II.
At the time, members of Sicily’s regional assembly were paid about €15,000 a month and earned the right to a pension after just 4½ years in office, all while the Sicilian economy had shrunk 5% between 2008 and 2012, and unemployment had risen to 18%.
We have a political class who is eating the living flesh of this country
Mr. Grillo crisscrossed the island, speaking from the back of pickup trucks and balconies overlooking village squares. He promised a minimum guaranteed income and a fight against perks and privileges enjoyed by local politicians.
“We should be much angrier than the Greeks and the Spaniards,” he told one rally. “They don’t have politicians who steal. We have a political class who is eating the living flesh of this country.”
In one stunt that garnered him national attention, he swam the nearly 2-mile strait separating Sicily from the Italian mainland. “I wanted to show that a 64-year old man, overweight, who isn’t an athlete, but a comedian, works hard for six months and succeeds,” Mr. Grillo said in a speech later in Palermo. “We can change things.”
Polls predicted the group would get 10% of votes. It won 18%.
“We were so disorganized that we didn’t even have candidates at the beginning,” said Alessio Villarosa, a Sicilian lawmaker who designed campaign T-shirts reading “Down with La Casta.” “People weren’t even familiar with the name ‘5 Star Movement.’ I used to say, ‘I’m part of Grillo’s movement,’ and they understood.”