Relatively early on in Paolo Sorrentino’s film about Silvio Berlusconi, we see the former right-wing Italian prime minister (played by the director’s longtime collaborator Toni Servillo, sporting an eerily frozen smile on his face) on his Sardinian mansion’s lawn, standing in shit while denying to his grandson that he is standing in shit. “Your grandfather has never stepped in poop his whole life, and never will,” he tells the boy, before embarking on a theory about how the shit in question is, in fact, just earth that’s been dug up during yardwork. The kid buys his grandpa’s story, at which point Berlusconi reveals the real aim of this impromptu lesson: “Truth is the result of our tone of voice and the conviction with which we speak,” he says, through his ossified, creepy-ass grin. In other words, he absolutely is standing in shit. He’s just convinced us that shit is not shit.
It’s a nice little encapsulation of the controversial, grotesque Berlusconi’s appeal — he was Trump before Trump, a constant salesman who came up through the corrupt, cut-throat world of Italian business and made the leap to politics by connecting with voters’ basest instincts. He was a shameless, obvious liar who nevertheless seemed able to convince just enough voters of his unvarnished, man-of-the-people sincerity. And although Loro focuses on the period in the late 2000s when Berlusconi was mostly out of power, it also suggests that maybe Italy served as Europe’s canary in the coal mine for the poison of modern-day right-wing populism; Berlusconi’s first ascent to power predates even his good pal Vladimir Putin’s.
To that end, Sorrentino shows how Berlusconi created a reality-distortion field around himself, one that fed off not only his own vulgar charisma but also the sycophancy, fear, and ambition of those that stepped within it. (Tellingly, his wife Veronica, who seems resistant to his “charms” in this film, is often shown behind screens and netting, isolated physically from her husband. In some senses, she’s caged; but she’s also largely impervious to the force field of his personality.)
Loro begins with an absurdly lengthy disclaimer — about how it’s “wholly artistic and makes no claim to objective truth” and admitting that it “brings together non-existent characters and real people in entirely invented contexts” — which was probably legally necessary, but somewhat undermines the movie’s initial impact. A big old admission right out of the starting gate that his film is fake news doesn’t exactly enhance the conviction with which Sorrentino himself speaks. But the director isn’t interested in a straight biopic anyway, or even an authentic recounting of news events. One could argue that he’s not even all that interested in Berlusconi himself. Loro — the title translates as “them” — is as much about the people around Berlusconi, and the people who aspire to be around Berlusconi, as it is about Berlusconi. The version being released here clocks in at nearly two and a half hours, but it’s been cut down from an even longer, two-part Italian release, which, as I understand, focuses even more on the loro part of this whole equation.
So, almost like some sort of profane, postmodern fable, Loro starts off as the story of Sergio (the rough, handsome Riccardo Scamarcio, who looks like someone tried and failed to draw Alain Delon), a small-time Pugliese businessman and hustler, who likes to bribe government officials with beautiful girls. He decides he wants to expand his enterprise and make his way to the shining light of Berlusconi’s inner circle. (In a moment emblematic of Loro’s unabashedly vulgarian approach to plot development, Sergio gets this idea while having sex with the same sex worker that he just used to convince a local bureaucrat to give him his town’s school lunch business; Sergio sees that she has a lower-back tattoo of Berlusconi’s grinning face, almost as if the man has put his brand on every debased interaction in Italian society.) So, before we get to see Berlusconi at all, we see Sergio assembling a small network of gorgeous models, throwing lavish parties, and meeting the right people, all in an attempt to one day grab the attentions of the famously hedonistic former prime minister.
But Berlusconi himself is not quite the demonic satyr we might expect. Sorrentino presents him as a somewhat deluded, aging, lonely little man, desperate to win back his wife Veronica after a lifetime of infidelity and what were famously called his “bunga bunga” parties. He wanders his mansion and his yards, conspiring to make his way back into office, reliving his old glories, that big rotten plastic smile on his face looking weirder and weirder by the minute. (About a decade ago, Sorrentino’s Il Divo portrayed another corrupt Italian politician: the long-serving postwar prime minister Giulio Andreotti. That figure was a vampiric one, literally: Sorrentino and Servillo showed him almost always sheathed in darkness, barely ever in motion, and the director even told me at the time that Nosferatu was an influence on the film. Now, he seems to be inspired by another horror film made by a German Expressionist, Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs. Which, coincidentally, also inspired Joker. Smiling, in-your-face monsters are all the rage nowadays.)
Loro would never be accused of being pro-Berlusconi, but there is pathos here. For all his preening, self-aggrandizing bluster, this man seems to understand deep down that his power is slipping away, and that the supernova of his authority is well on its way to becoming a white dwarf, or maybe even a black hole. The film captures him mid-collapse, ready to be picked apart by opportunistic scavengers such as Sergio. Even when he does return to power, the accomplishment seems empty, pointless, unfulfilling.
All that said, I have no idea how accurate any of this movie is, in part because Sorrentino, whose stories already tend to be purposefully fragmented, loses some of the narrative threads he establishes as the film proceeds. There’s a curiously open-ended quality to Loro, and it’s possible that some of this is due to cuts made from the original Italian version. But the director’s passion and verve make up for many of his picture’s shortcomings. Not unlike his Oscar-winning masterpiece The Great Beauty, Loro is awash in striking, surreal imagery and mesmerizing musical reveries to unchecked hedonism. There’s drinking and drugs and dizzying dolly shots and explosions of color and light and music and, predictably, writhing half-naked bodies, usually female. The exploitative brazenness with which Sorrentino presents such images is both discomfiting and alluring, and that’s probably the idea: He hopes to mesmerize us the same way that Sergio hopes to mesmerize Berlusconi, and it is crucial to the movie’s impact that we can see what he’s doing, while letting him do it to us. In that sense, Loro itself becomes somewhat Berlusconian, though associating that pseudo-fascist slimeball with anything this visually resplendent should be some sort of crime.
And it’s not all just dancing and gyrating and coke-snorting. Sorrentino has a flair for moments of telling absurdism. One night, as Sergio and his retinue are walking through Rome, headed to a restaurant, a garbage truck swerves to avoid a rat and flies off a bridge, landing in Roman ruin before exploding in an orgasmic volcano of trash, all of which the director films in sensuous, loving slow motion — which then jump cuts to a slow-motion rain of Ecstasy pills on a pool party. (So I take it back, maybe it is all dancing and gyrating and drug-taking.) It’s like a cross between the explosive consumerist apocalypse at the end of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point and 2001’s famous match-cut from a bone to a space-ship — all reimagined by the world’s most talented film-school student.
This is not necessarily a bad thing: Sorrentino started his career as a stalwart maximalist in a film world that was in thrall to grit and austere, stony realism. Now, the ground has shifted, and he’s become the alpha dog in a cinematic landscape that favors spectacle, hyperbole, and fractured, meme-friendly weirdness. He delivers a form of earworm cinema — his narratives are incomplete, his images are oblique, his symbols inexact, which in turn enhances their stickiness. I keep replaying moments from his films, desperately trying to figure out What It All Means. But maybe the only thing any of it means is that it — be it an image, a cut, a gesture, or a whole sequence — has insinuated itself into my brain, like a lewd, lovely parasite. Loro made me feel dirty, and I can’t wait to see it again.