‘Loro’ Review: A Corrupt Leader, and the People Who Love Him
Even before he shows up onscreen, about 20 minutes into “Loro,” Silvio Berlusconi is the center of attention. His face is tattooed on a woman’s lower back, and he is talked about constantly, though rarely by name. When people say “him,” chances are they mean, well, him, and to dispel any ambiguity they sometimes double up the masculine pronoun. The prime minister of Italy for most of the 1990s and early 2000s (and currently a member of the European Parliament) is twice the man anyone else could hope to be: he’s “him him.”
“Loro” means “them” in Italian, and it can be taken to refer to everyone in Italy who is not Silvio Berlusconi. Or, more narrowly, to the flatterers, courtiers and women who flitter like moths around the incandescent bulb of his personality. That personality — a volatile compound of vanity, ruthlessness, hedonism and charm — is the movie’s central puzzle.
Berlusconi, played with shrewd calculation, gleeful abandon and plasticized hair by Toni Servillo, dominates everyone in the movie with his energetic pursuit of power and pleasure. The film’s director, Paolo Sorrentino, himself seems to have surrendered to the so-called presidente and his curious brand of charisma. The satirical and skeptical notes in this symphony of lust and corruption are drowned out after a while, and queasy fascination melts into a kind of affectionate, exhausted awe. In trying to explore just what made this guy irresistible, Sorrentino conquers whatever resistance he himself might have had. Berlusconi is lecherous, vulgar and dishonest, but somehow impossible not to love.
After a convoluted explanation of the almost-trueness of this story, a bit of sleazy transactional sex on a boat and a possibly metaphorical scene of a sheep freezing to death in an air-conditioned villa, we are deposited at the outer edge of the Berlusconi circle, pulled ever closer to the man himself. Our guide, for a while, is Sergio Morra (Riccardo Scamarcio), a handsome young climber with enough sensitivity in his features to make us trust him at least a little.
Scamarcio gives off a whiff of Tony Curtis in “Sweet Smell of Success,” and also of Marcello Mastroianni in “La Dolce Vita,” though his milieu makes theirs look positively antiseptic. In Sorrentino’s Italy (and Berlusconi’s), parties never stop, promises are rarely kept and a woman’s place is wherever a man can get a good look at her breasts. Sergio, who has a wife named Tamara (Euridice Axen), finds his way into the confidence of Kira (Kasia Smutniak), a favorite of Berlusconi’s who promises access to “him him.” Sergio’s plan is to join the ranks of procurers who bring young women to Berlusconi’s attention. In exchange, he hopes for a low-level political appointment that will bring in some money.
Sergio is quickly upstaged by the prime minister himself, who is in a temporary Napoleonic exile in Sardinia. Berlusconi, dressed in white linen, wanders the grounds of his estate, chatting with his wife, Veronica (Elena Sofia Ricci), one of his grandsons, a loyal lieutenant and a court musician. (Though the chronology is not precise, it seems to be 2008 or 2009.) He pontificates, he sings sentimental songs, he sweet-talks and browbeats political rivals and allies, and generally behaves like a guy having the time of his life. Occasionally a note of wistfulness or melancholy slips into his monologues, but real regret and deep introspection are alien to his character. He’s a salesman, a showman, a ladies man, a man of the people.
What he isn’t, in this version, is a monster or a clown. Sorrentino, who has plumbed the decadence of the Roman elite in “The Great Beauty” and splashed around in Vatican intrigue in “The Young Pope,” shows more interest in the theater of politics than in its substance. In some ways Berlusconi, a media mogul and cruise-ship crooner in earlier phases of his career, a creature of appetite and excess, is Sorrentino’s ideal subject. But the overlap in their sensibilities turns “Loro” into a blurry, distracted, sentimental portrait. Berlusconi’s womanizing — a source of scandal and titillation that is overdue for a serious reckoning — serves as an alibi for Sorrentino’s voyeurism.
And in any case, the film regards Berlusconi’s sexual appetite with tender indulgence. Which is also how it treats his scheming and double-dealing. A little more than 10 years ago, in the midst of the real Berlusconi’s reign, Sorrentino and Servillo made “Il Divo,” a scabrous portrait of Giulio Andreotti, one of the masterminds of the now-defunct Christian Democratic Party through much of its long ascendancy. That film was an acid-etched, unnerving portrait of ideological rot disguised as moral righteousness. This one, by contrast, is warm and soft, which makes it either startling in its sincerity or horrifying in its cynicism. Either way, it might be a portent of things to come, as filmmakers try to frame the legacies of leaders who succeed through shamelessness.
Not rated. In Italian, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 31 minutes.
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A.O. Scott is the co-chief film critic. He joined The Times in 2000 and has written for the Book Review and The New York Times Magazine. He is also the author of “Better Living Through Criticism.” @aoscott
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