It’s probably fair to say that Paolo Sorrentino, the man who gave us The Great Beauty and The Young Pope, is drawn to powerful figures — be they politicians, pontiffs, legendary party animals, or provincial, small-minded crooks. In former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, he’s somehow found a subject that combines all of those. In the wild, troubling, and riveting Loro, the great maximalist of international cinema presents a portrait not just of Berlusconi but also of the people — the very culture — around him. It might be Sorrentino’s most ambitious film to date, and in some ways his most shocking, if only because, in the midst of this carnival of grotesqueries, he actually finds something human about the controversial Italian leader. We spoke to the director about meeting with Berlusconi, enduring his monologues, and whether the filmmaker ever thinks he’s gone too far in his movies.
In the opening scene of Loro, we see a sheep enter Berlusconi’s house, look at a TV with a game show on it, and then look at the air conditioner. The temperature drops, and the sheep dies. What on earth is going on here?
In the home of Berlusconi, I imagined it to be cold and hostile. It’s cold because the AC is too cold, and the sheep dies. But the sheep is also shown watching this TV, which has a game show on it, and of course Berlusconi is known for developing this kind of TV show that was criticized for being very shallow. So, we wonder if the sheep dies because of the cold or because of the shallowness, the nothingness of the shows on TV.
What attracted you to Berlusconi as a film subject?
There were many reasons, but it was mainly because I believed that Berlusconi the man, even though he’s an extrovert, has a mysterious side, and I was interested in exploring this mysterious side. I cannot say that I was able to uncover it by making this movie. I made an attempt to uncover it. And I came up with some hypotheses: I would say that based on his age — because by the time period of the movie he’s already an old man — I think maybe he has a very strong fear of death.
Did you have to do a lot of research into him and the events surrounding him?
I didn’t do a lot of research. I know a lot about the situation politically because I was there when it happened. I was more interested in the man himself. But I also didn’t do much research into that aspect either because Berlusconi is the type of man who always wears a mask. Even in the intimate moments with his family. I decided even interviewing people who knew him well would not be meaningful. So I started to imagine him as the author of a movie. And I had to come up with my own idea of him.
Tell me about the decision to make the film as much about the people around Berlusconi as Berlusconi himself.
In 2006 and 2009, we had a lot of euphoria in the air in Italy. The reasons are difficult to identity. Maybe because we had been going through some hard times; there was a period of terrorism and political kickback scandals. Berlusconi at that time, while dangerous, was something of a novelty. There was this circle of people — loro — that gravitated around him, basically trying to take advantage of him and his concentration of power. In Italy, this sort of vitality hadn’t been seen before — not since the end of WWII. It was a crazy period of time when the rules didn’t apply anymore. And it was a time of vulgarity but also sensuality. For a filmmaker like me, who is interested in this kind of imagery, it was hard to resist. I was like a glutton in a pastry shop.
Your imagery is very stylized, very extreme. Are there times when you think, I’ve gone too far. I should pull back? How far is too far for Paolo Sorrentino?
This is something that I do constantly. I want to be realistic, but only in the sense that I want to make a comparison. But with cinema, it’s not up to us to be real. Cinema is something fake. People criticize me and say that I look for vulgarity, but sometimes, the imagery is vulgar. A few days ago our minister of the interior was partying on a beach. But in terms of imagery, this movie was built around so many different tracks. The world that it depicts is mainly vulgar, but vulgarity has for me a certain fascination — it can become sensual. And I try to work it out with all the tools that I have as a cinematographer: lighting, shots, scenes, costumes, photography first and foremost. I want to create something special that you can only see in the cinema. It’s a little bit like when you go to a restaurant, it’s because you want to eat well — not because you want to eat what you can get at home.
Some years ago, you made another very critical film about a political leader, with Il Divo and Giulio Andreotti. At the time, you actually told me that you showed the film to Andreotti. Did you have similar interactions with Berlusconi himself?
It was similar to Andreotti, in that I met him several times for lunch. But I didn’t show him the movie, and I don’t know if he’s seen the movie. I wanted to meet with him because I wanted to see him up close, not because I wanted to talk with him, or to ask him questions. I wanted to see how he moved, how he looked, his gestures. I didn’t think that talking to him would be useful. Anyone who meets with you when you’re making a movie about them, they basically put on an act.
What was he like?
He would go on very long monologues, and repeat what he always said about the communists and the judges. It was also a time when his party was out of the government, and he was in pain because he was not part of the government. He had this deep need to be at center stage. He still talked about all these achievements. And I also sensed a little bit of provincialism. He would talk about all the things that they’d done internationally, about how he met the prime minister of Japan, or the president of the U.S. He needed to show off.
Were you surprised that he agreed to meet with you?
Not too much. I thought that it was quite normal because he always wants to make an enemy into a friend. He also wanted to make sure the movie wouldn’t be negative. So he didn’t want to attack me. He wanted to conquer me.
When it became clear the film would not be a positive portrayal, did you sense any pressure? He is still a powerful man.
I can’t say that I felt any pressure. I imagine that he probably worried about how it might reflect on him if he tried to pressure me.
I can tell you that if you were making a movie like this about Donald Trump, you’d probably be getting nonstop death threats.
The situation is a bit different because Trump is in power. At the time I was making the movie, Mr. Berlusconi was not in power. He was in a sort of retirement. But no, I did not receive any kind of pressure whatsoever, from him or anybody around him.
I was surprised, at the same time, that the film isn’t a screed against Berlusconi. You do try to depict him as a human, and there’s some pathos there, in how he’s trying to win back his wife, how he feels about rejection, etc.
You never make a movie against something or someone. You always try to make a movie to try to understand a complex man. I can’t say that the movie has compassion, but rather understanding toward the man at the center of it. I was trying to understand the human side of Berlusconi, the one that he was trying to hide. Because he wanted to portray himself as almost superhuman — the best at achieving this or that thing. So I tried to discover his human side, but of course this doesn’t mean that I agree with his political ideas.
How is the American version of the film different than the longer, two-part Italian version?
I would say that the American version is just shorter than the Italian. The first part shows the boundless wish of meeting Berlusconi, and then finally Berlusconi arrives. But I needed to create this sense of curiosity. Like in Anna Karenina.
A lot of people would say that, given the times we’re living in, we shouldn’t be spending our time humanizing powerful monsters.
I really can’t say, because I do not understand the United States that well. All I can say is that this is an honest movie. It was not made to advocate a position. It was made to depict a politician and a human being. So it was interesting to observe a man who thinks he is making decisions for the common good. But really I cannot forecast how the film will be received in the United States.
You yourself have had quite a bit of success over the past few years. You’ve won an Oscar, you’ve had an HBO hit with The Young Pope. How has your life changed?
Luckily, very little has changed in my life. And this happened thanks to my very wise wife. She reminded me that nothing had to change, that we had to be consistent with who we were and are. And I needed to remain faithful to my original enthusiasm for film, no matter how successful I may be.