Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino has made a name for himself both in his home country and abroad with his portraits of the lavish contradictions of his native Italy. Films like The Great Beauty and Il Divo glory in both the glistening hedonism of their subjects while laying bare the moral chaos of their characters. He goes hard or he goes home. Remember, this is the dude who made The Young Pope.
For Loro, he has chosen a subject almost as baffling and enthralling as a chain-smoking firebrand Pope played by Jude Law: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. It seemed inevitable that someone would eventually make a biopic of him: The corruption, the sex scandals, the ‘bunga bunga’ parties, the tax fraud, the occasional defences of the Mussolini regime, and of course, that dye job. If Berlusconi didn’t exist, he would have to be made up by a clueless non-Italian who was given the pitch ‘write a caricature of an oversexed and corrupt Italian politician.’
In Italy, Loro was released as an epic two-part film that did respectably at the box office but reviews have been less kind. Rolling Stone Italia infamously likened the film to ‘a porn film without a moral issue.’ In fairness, a fitting description of the man himself. Still, with Loro screening at TIFF in a one movie edit, and with Berlusconi himself still mounting a political comeback on top of other ongoing Presidential panics, one wouldn’t blame audiences for wanting to skip this one. And indeed, the seemingly perfect combination of Sorrentino and Berlusconi ultimately proves too good to be true.
It’s hard to escape the feeling while watching Loro that you’re only watching part of the story the director intended audiences to see. I’m not sure what was cut down to get two movies into one but even for a two and a half hour movie, this one feels riddled with holes. The pacing is not helped either, although some of those problems may be directly tied to that editing issue.
As it is, the product presented to Toronto is not without its slimy charm. Sorrentino is an absolute master of overwhelming maximalism, drenching each frame in something your eye hungers to take in. Even Martin Scorsese would envy how Sorrentino shoots a drug-fuelled hooker populated borderline orgy. The effect of these many parties is akin to the ceaseless soirees of The Wolf of Wall Street: You instinctively turn away, find yourself drawn back like a moth to a flame, revel in the chaos, then become endlessly bored by it. At one point in the film, a group of gorgeous and young women do a costume-clad sexy dance to Slow by Kylie Minogue for Silvio’s entertainment and the dullness in their eyes harkens back to the Big Spender number in Sweet Charity. This will either delight or aggravate you, depending on your patience for such things, but the film understands on some level that one cannot make a substantive and classy movie out of an uncouth man with the depth of a teaspoon. He gets that power and the hunger for it is fundamentally vulgar. Still, the sheer amount of boobs does wear thin. You can’t always have your cake — ‘Excess is awesome!’ — and eat it too — ‘Look at how bad excess is.’
Sorrentino depicts Berlusconi as a bored old man in need of a project. He is endlessly wealthy, still retains immense political clout even after losing the Prime Minister job, and can command a never-ending crowd of hangers-on whenever the occasion calls for it. Yet he wants more, although he doesn’t seem to understand why. He wants it all partly because he feels entitled to it but mostly because it seems right.
Making a movie about a real-life politician who is still alive and trying to mount a comeback during a time of immense political strife is a testy area for any film-maker. That Berlusconi is such a caricature already doesn’t make it any easier. Where Sorrentino and actor Tony Servillo excel is in understanding that, as charming and funny and genuinely unnerving as Silvio Berlusconi can be, he is ultimately a highly pathetic creature and everyone understands that. His wife lives with the indignity of being Mrs. Berlusconi, a bevy of beautiful girls stalk him as a means to an end, and some just straight-up tell him they think he’s gross. He claims he cannot be embarrassed or insulted but it’s clearly not the case. Berlusconi claims that the leftist judges — his favourite strawman for every problem in his life — have never truly understood him because they get too complicated in their explanations. For Loro, that point is true because truly, Berlusconi’s just a 70-year-old toddler.
Tony Servillo, a Sorrentino regular, is eerily perfect as Berlusconi. Once again drenched in fantastic make-up work to play a corrupt Italian politician — that shoe-polish black hair and blinding white set of dentures deserve their own Oscar — he nails that iconic full-faced smile seen in many a tabloid, at turns creepy, endearing and uncanny. Servillo makes it easy to understand how this man charms so many - part politician, part salesman, part preacher - and glories in the deliberate artifice of his shtick. Berlusconi is a man who is always playing a part, even to his wife (played to self-loathing perfection by Elena Sofia Richie).
Loro is weakened by a flimsy framing device of an ambitious businessman and his partner who plan to infiltrate Berlusconi’s inner circle through cocaine, call girls and yacht parties. The purpose of these characters seems to be to highlight how the glow of Berlusconi’s power remains ever potent, even after his ousting, because he is and always will be the man who gets things done. This cut of the story, however, seems to get bored with this pair by the time the story fully focuses on Berlusconi. Their place in the story, as a result, feels superfluous and not especially enlightening.
Loro is unwieldy, immensely fun, kind of a drag and not as deep as it thinks it is. In essence, it’s an ideal take on Berlusconi. It understands a fundamental truth of this particular brand of despot — psychologically speaking, there’s not much there.
Header Image Source: Header image courtesy of TIFF.