Silvio Berlusconi is a man of many hats: media tycoon, real estate mogul, the most blithely corrupt Prime Minister in Italian history, and, during the staggeringly lavish parties he’d throw for himself and his harem of leggy admirers, a self-styled mad god. Who better to take on the monumental, perilous task of dramatizing his life than the great Paolo Sorrentino, a filmmaker permanently torn between the sacred and the profane? Clocking in at 145 minutes, his latest feature Loro is also his most gloriously, pornographically over-the-top, continuing Federico Fellini’s lifelong mission to critique excess by force-feeding it to his audience until they get sick. With kaleidoscopic grandeur, he luxuriates in carnal and narcotic decadence on an unprecedentedly dazzling scale. For every line of cocaine, there’s a naked buttock to snort it off of.
His antic Berlusconi is portrayed with a slick of dyed-black hair and a shit-eating grin by Toni Servillo, Italy’s answer to Something’s Gotta Give-era Jack Nicholson. He plays the glad-handing politico as a congenial creep, a dirty old man who keeps a collection of favored women identifiable by the butterfly pendant necklaces he gifts them like dog tags. After backslapping and bribing his way into office, he conducted governmental summits like a variety show on one of his many networks, distracting from his own misdeeds with a constant stream of jokes, made-up quotations, and shiny lies. Servillo succeeds in what may be the most difficult task an actor can undertake, and finds the humanity in a despicable figure without softening or absolving him.
It’s a new high of scathing satire for regular collaborators Sorrentino and Servillo, who found a spare moment during Loro’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival to chat through a skilled translator with Vulture. Though notoriously loath to do press, they opened up when discussing the ethics of depicting reprehensible behavior, the lingering influence of Sorrentino’s work on The Young Pope, and the unavoidable Trump comparisons. Viva la cinema!
As an American critic, it’s hard not to see Donald Trump in your portrayal of Silvio Berlusconi. Did you consider the commonalities between them at all during production?
Paolo Sorrentino: Quite frankly, no. It’s all a matter of time, being as I wrote this script prior to the election of Donald Trump. If there are similarities, they’re involuntary.
In that case, would it be more accurate to say that there are certain constants universal to all powerful, corrupt men?
PS: As far as I know from what I read about Trump — it’s a terrible habit, but I can’t stop — when political leaders are too blithe in their mixture of their private world with their political activities, that causes widespread damage. Both Berlusconi and Trump have this propensity to treat government like their businesses, and that is always dangerous.
Whether aesthetic or more literal, pleasure is the guiding principle of Loro. What role does that play in the film? Is that excess ever for its own sake?
Toni Servillo: I think that the dimension of pleasure has a very strong symbolic meaning in the film. Berlusconi, in this film and in life — and Trump, in his own way — have brought into the world of politics a spectacle akin to show business. They use enjoyment and entertainment create the figure of a leader who has dramatically enshrined himself into the crowd, which is here the conscience of the voters. It’s not in the sense of people electing a representative, but being seduced by a master of deceit. And of course, the main element of seduction is pleasure. In the film, for example, there’s an overwhelming representation of the body, which we use as a metaphor for the superficial pleasure these leaders impose. Berlusconi thrives on superficiality; don’t dig too deep, don’t look too closely, and everyone will have a fun time.
Whenever someone makes a film about men who live extravagant lives of sin — we saw this with The Wolf of Wall Street not too long ago — detractors will accuse them of indulging in the same extravagance they’re condemning in the film. How do you respond to such charges?
PS: This is an old controversy that has gone on forever, with regards to violent films. “If you make a violent film, you must be glorifying violence,” and so on. Any person, regardless of how abject or deplorable they can be, is potentially worth of being put on screen. Because putting something on the screen allows you to understand what can otherwise seem distant or incomprehensible. The objective is not to glorify, at least not for me, nor is it to point a finger and decide which men are good and which men are bad. That’s the wrong approach for art in general, whether it’s a film or novel. This film gives us an opportunity to get an in-depth understanding of all sides of this man, and that’s why it had to be two and a half hours long. Reaching that understanding means exposing certain bothersome facts. If aspects of this film bother and audience, that is a crucial step on the way to understanding.
For example, this film is about a triumph of vulgarity. I don’t think it should be my job to say, “Look how ugly vulgarity is, and how ugly these vulgar people are.” That would be an excessively Manichean way of looking at the world. This ambiguity can be unpleasant and uncomfortable, and doing it this way gets fewer positive responses from viewers, but it’s necessary to show the beauty of vulgarity. It is beautiful. Why else would it be so popular? I am more interested in interrogating what is so attractive about a life we can also find repulsive.
I’d say Loro is your most profane film yet. Do you ever feel pressure to top your previous work, in terms of outrageousness?
PS: [Chuckles.] Why thank you! Not really, though. I don’t know exactly what my next film will be, but it feels like the right idea will be to go in the opposite direction with something more restrained.
Loro was released as two films for Italian markets. Could you talk us through the process of condensing them into one?
PS: The first part of the film was where I did most of the cutting for the international version, because it mostly dealt with the courtiers surrounding Berlusconi. The story delves more into these ancillary characters, who are more recognizable to people reading the Italian news and keeping up with the country’s current events. The average foreigner probably isn’t aware of all this minutiae, so I cut that from Part One, and it didn’t compromise what I’m trying to say with this abbreviated version in the least.
We see in the film that Berlusconi is a powerful, influential, underhanded man. Did either of you feel trepidation about taking on such an intimidating figure?
PS: [Shrugs.] Eh, no. Berlusconi is a very ironic man, and I was hoping he’d apply this irony to the film. I mean to say that if he tried to censor us, it would only prove his portrayal in the film to be accurate. I don’t know if he’s seen it or not, but we were very careful about toying with facts, especially if it ran the risk of sliding into something libelous. We weren’t afraid, but we paid careful attention, as one always does when dealing with real people who are still alive.
TS: Paolo, of course, is the author of the story. He looked at the facts and, through an act of transfiguration, built them into a narrative. Two of the most fun scenes were created through this creative reworking. The first is when he’s talking with his doppelgänger, and the second is when he calls the woman to sell her a home as practice for his skills of persuasion.
Did you consult a legal team for the lengthy disclaimer that opens the film?
PS: Our lawyers were happy to see that disclaimer, but I was happy to have it as well. The objective of the film is not to be an exposé; that’s best left to the newspapers. Instead, we wanted to create a portrait of a man and a period in a dimension that’s not exclusively Italian. With minor modifications, this man and his era can be echoed in other countries and scenarios.
Did working in TV on The Young Pope influence the way you structure your plotting? There are parts of the film that feel a bit episodic.
PS: Not really. They are two separate entities, for me. A TV series is closer to writing a long novel, and it demands more compromise, because television requires you to work with a network more closely than with a studio or distributor. Loro is a single work without chapters, and I got a little more control.
I was surprised when you went to HBO, remembering the bit in Youth where Jane Fonda speaks disparagingly about television. What motivated the decision to give TV a try?
PS: You’re not the first person who’s brought that up, but the comments that her character makes are just that — from the character, not from my mouth. But in the last few years, television has abandoned some of its more rigid standards and granted more freedom to writers. This has created a wide opportunity for writers and directors who once disdained the restraints of of TV, and now realize that there’s a lot of space to work. I mean that both in terms of creative control and longitude; it grants greater length to explore and shade character. In cinema, you still must abide by canonical timeframes in which the film must end, or else it’ll barely be seen by anyone.
Berlusconi can be a ridiculous man, but the film doesn’t want to write him off as a cartoon. Toni, how do you thread that needle with your performance?
TS: Avoiding caricature is a matter of style. I don’t think it’s an effective tool to portray a man who’s been so powerful for 20 years as a cartoon. That’s the job of farce, and plenty of comic actors have portrayed him in that capacity elsewhere. We did not forget that we were telling the private story of a man who wielded gigantic economic influence, a tycoon who went from business to government while being completely alien to any notion of nobility. Though our film contains comedy, the damage he has caused is serious and real. The film doesn’t lose touch with that, so Berlusconi never turns into caricature.