Filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino has an uncanny talent of studying the rise, and, consequentially, of the powerful. His entire filmography is replete with stunning explorations of individuals situated at the highest echelons of political and economic dominance; his films acknowledge and bravely depict the decadent exuberance of their lifestyles, especially in the middle of their process of eventual ruin, right when they’re falling from grace, exactly at the moment of gross denial and escapism, and that makes him one of the most unique voices in World Cinema today. He’s also endowed with a profound knowledge of the visual culture of the elites, most notably of their twisted classicism and the extreme focus on the optics of leadership enabled by decades of carefully constructed publicity influenced by the European fashion industrial complex. His cinematic language is rooted in craft perfectionism and a sense of historicity, borrowing from a pool of elements sourced from the entire History of the art form – German Expressionism, golden-era Italian dramas, even a page or two from the book of Scorsese. This is why Loro, a look on the immoral exploits and thoughtless excess of Italy’s most powerful man, Silvio Berlusconi, could only be made by Sorrentino. He’s an expert in depicting an Empire about to crumble by reveling in the diabolical burlesque at its very core.
The title Loro literally translates to “them”, but it is also a play on “l’oro” (Gold) and it quickly establishes the nefarious, self-serving system of collaborations from the “yes people,” the unquestioned sycophants, the playmakers in the corridors of power, but most notably, the vicious vultures standing in its peripheries awaiting a piece of the riches. The admittedly long film’s first act follows Sergio Morra, a young but notoriously unscrupulous businessman from Taranto, played in a Tony Curtis fashion by an engaging Riccardo Scamarcio, who is committed to doing absolutely anything to get close to power. His method is to shower strategic businessmen and politicians with hordes of beautiful women. His trafficking ring slowly extends to Rome, where he’s determined to approach “him”. We know who he is, the entire world of the film lives by his shadow. It’s not only “him”, it’s “him him”.
It’s almost forty minutes into the movie when we finally take a look at Berlusconi himself. Played with excruciating precision by veteran Toni Servillo, whom we know from previous collaborations with Sorrentino, Silvio immediately takes over with his overwhelming force of personality, but this time, we witnesses the fascinating contradictions going on in this particular period of his reign. Media mogul, football impresario and iconic billionaire, he is still the most powerful man in Italy, only now he has lost control of the government, following an election where his party lost majority by only 25,000 votes. He shows confidence in his return to Premiership, but this confidence is really denial; his Napoleonic self-exile in Sardinia, a retreat to a life of comfort, accompanied by his family, a rotating cast of servants, his loyal Mafia man Paolo Spagnolo and even a court musician, reveals a man evading the truth of his complex conditions. He’s also desperately trying to win his wife Veronica back, expensive gifts and flowers are not enough anymore. This inter regnum disturbs the once Emperor.
What he does have, and relies on it continously, is charm. His ineludible charisma is perhaps his one true talent. Sergio rarely wipes the grin off his face, be it convincing his grandson that he never steps on dung, and that “truth is nothing but the conviction in your voice when you speak”, or facing Veronica’s denunciations of endless adultery and profound corruption; he keeps impeccable calm in giving and receiving advice from his loyalists, as well as in negotiating with his rivals, only raising his voice when he lays down the curtains on his traitors. A master of tone, Servillo understands that Berlusconi is, first and foremost, a salesman and an entertainer. He breaks into song for his guests and his wife, a remnant of the early days as a cruise crooner, and takes the phone to sell a non-existent house to a random woman. He knows “the script of life”. In reality, Berlusconi is a ruthless authoritarian, a filthy loan shark and the embodiment of all the evils in leadership. He uses his larger-than-life, headline-baiting persona to keep the people on his side, and his obscene wealth to warp the Law. He’s damn untouchable, and knows it. A Putin before Putin, a proto-Trump in all senses, but with the cash and the approval to back it up.
Sorrentino’s aesthetic universe in Loro serves as a stunning reflection of the hideous absurdity that takes place. Before the film even starts, we get hit by a Disclaimer stating that what we’re about to see is not a factual retelling of the Silvio story, but a poetic reinterpretation that contains fictional individuals and events, something obviously meant for legal reasons, but that unfortunately takes a bit from the portrayal’s original intentions. However, like an ancient sacred book, the film is more concerned with the truths in its message, rather than the facts in its chronology. Loro is a highly-stylized, unabashedly exuberant, gorgeous mess of a film; we get an exciting parade of hedonism and debauchery, complete with masses of naked people, mostly women, cocaine sequences set to The Stooges’ “Down on the Street”, and ecstatic, gleefully sordid MDMA parties worthy of the best EDM music video ever made. Music, in fact, takes a leading role at times – a perverted beauty peagant-like dance performance in the key of Kylie Minogue, a serenade of “Domenica bestiale” by the legendary Fabio Concato, and of course, Servillo’s own take on the standard “Na Gelosia” – but it’s in the convulsing, morbid imagery that the film displays its power. Despite its whopping 145 minutes, the film never feels dragging or tedious; the rapid-fire editing, and Sorrentino’s economical mise-en-scène , capture us through its entire runtime. Sorrentino is an irredeemable maximalist, as Loro encompasses a long-raging palette of references and flavors. He invokes the psychedelia of Zabriskie Point, the oneiric alchemy of peak Fellini, to brief glimpses of Luhrmann’s Gatsby and Polish School-era modernist fantasies.
But in its core, Loro is complete, unadulterated Sorrentino, even to a fault. He constructs a set of narratives that sometimes seem too much to handle; some threads lead to nowhere, or are left unattended, and at times it appears to show complete disregard for consistency, and for some of the subjects themselves. Yet, it is always clear that its main goals are to concentrate what such a revolting visual spectacle reveals and, most crucially, implies. The film’s main success is that it wallows in the aesthetics of disgust. We are presented with reels and reels of twisted, decadent glamour, rampant impunity, vicious political maneuvering, and it’s up to us to complete the plot with associations. It feels sometimes like torture. A sort of Ludivico technique that brings to mind Korine’s Spring Breakers’ neon-lit and smoke-enshrouded portrayal of criminal Florida. It is dangerously careful with the figure of Berlusconi, yes, as we rarely witness him directly taking part in f he illicit activities, and never openly denounces the man, but it’s crystal clear in its mission: It’s a study of “him” through the actions of “them”.
Silvio Berlusconi, at the height of his power, was a cult leader-like figure. The undisputed leader of his nation, he was acclaimed by Italians even in full view of his criminal dealings; he was mercilessly attacked by their detractors, domestic and International, but his firm grip on the media and his charms kept him afloat. The previous elections were lost by a mere six seats, and he quickly got the missing deputies on his side, and won the following electoral process comfortably. He was back in the big chair, but this time, it looks as though the whole thing is ultimately pointless. Even Kings get old, Empires crumble; money and control are attainable, but you can’t truly have it all, or keep it forever.
Ultimately, Loro works for its three-sided critique. Sorrentino’s Silvio and Sergio serve as a sharp condemnation of masculinity; their thirst for domination mirrors their predatory treatment of women, their obsession with ostentation and opulence, and of course, their need to legitimize themselves via the political establishment. Their pursuits only reflect their embarrassing inferiority complex, but their success acknowledges the structural privilege of men in a society carefully designed for straight white men to win, one that not only condones but rewards their immorality. It’s also an indictment of power itself; in the final confrontation between Silvio and Veronica, he confesses that the entire apparatus is one gross, uninterrupted performance. He’s no different from all those weasels that fill the boards of directors, the halls of Parliament, and the TV screens. He’s only the best at it.The ruling class shape the world to serve the ruling class. Business as usual.
Nevertheless, the movie’s final dig, and by far its most insidiously brilliant, is directed at us. After all, Berlusconi was eventually persecuted, but later pardoned, and he still sits in the European Parliament today as we continue to fall for this ruse conduced by charming liars and ridiculous strongmen and we learn nothing. Our inaction makes us complicit. And yes, Berlusconi is still untouchable; his network is so far-reaching, so tightly-knit, so global that it would take the complete dismantling of our economic, political and judicial systems to take down this one man. To take down all of these vile merchants of disgrace. Who we really are in this game, is shown in Loro’s opening scene. We’re the sheep that freezes to death in Silvio’s air-conditioned villa and left to suffer in a world built for the comfort of the powerful. Sorrentino’s film is supposed to leave us uncomfortable. Maybe inadvertently, it wants us to realize that this absurdity will not stop, unless we make it.