Paolo Sorrentino seems most comfortable around the wealthy. Since Il Divo, one of the Italian art filmmaker’s now-11 year old features, his films have doted in and out of the wealthiest of circles. In that film we were swept away by the corruption and incoherence of Italian politics, and the machinations of PM Giulio Andreotti. Since then he’s given us Sean Penn as a faded rockstar, and Michael Caine as a legendary composer. Best of all is his high society-critique The Great Beauty from 2013, where Toni Servillo played Jep Gambardella, an aging, bemused veteran of the hollow dance known as the modern Italian aristocracy.
Yes, Sorrentino has his preoccupations. With his latest film Loro we’re back among the rich and beautiful, with most looking like they stepped off of a Vanity Fare cover-shoot. We’re swept up in real story of shifty tycoon, former-Italian prime minister, and media influencer Silvio Berlusconi, though we’re told early on the film is a work of fiction, speculating on the behind-closed-doors deals and drama of Berlusconi and his entourage.
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Release Date: September 20, 2019
But to back up slightly, Loro first focuses on Sergio Morra (Riccardo Scamarcio), an upstart businessman from the South of Italy, working in escorts and “talent scouting,” as it’s put. Off the bat, Loro is unapologetic in its depiction of men who use women, with bare flesh and beautiful bodies put on display lavishly and excessively. We don’t see harm done to women, but there’s a vapid sense of emptiness to the excess of parties and drug-fests Sergio tours, and Sorrentino photographs the decadence in trademark, stark beauty.
Slow-motion, loud music, and neat frames comprise what might start to feel like a slog of over-indulgence on Sorrentino’s part, whose ambitions to get closer to Berlusconi--unseen in the film until about an hour into the 151 minute runtime--are a mere hint in the background of sensory overload we’re subjected to. Drugs and sex are the order of the day, and while the party might feel a bit much (especially once we realize, later in the film, how it all seems a little like fluff) Sorrentino’s orchestration is occasionally terrific. A highlight includes a slow-motion rain of MDMA pills, gobbled up by supermodel partygoers while a chemist, present in a fourth wall-breaking role for the audience, casually describes the drug’s effects. Sorrentino runs the gamut with his visual and narrative tricks in Loro‘s first half.
Loro is filled with characters minor and major, all playing back up to the main event that is Berlusconi (referred to by many as “him him,” as if his name is to be spoken like a god’s). We get glimpses of women like Kira (Kasia Smutniak), powerful and caught up in the role of manipulator and gatekeeper to Berlusconi, as well as the aspiring actress Stella (Alice Pagani), whose youth and goodness call out the facade and nonsense of the whole shebang. There’s Berlusconi’s gravel-voiced mafioso right-hand (Dario Cantarelli) and an array of politicians and business-hopefuls all vying for a slice of the action, but Sorrentino uses them mostly as a means of setting the landscape.
Enter: Berlusconi. Under layers of what I assume are makeup, longtime Sorrentino-collaborator Toni Servillo realizes the mogul in all of his wrinkled-face grinning and domineering, to incredible effect. Servillo, working almost exclusively within the Italian industry, might be an unknown to some international viewers who are unfamiliar with Sorrentino’s work. Loro further cements him as a tremendous talent, turning on a heel as Berlusconi’s facade of excess and smiles yield cruel politicking and a deep struggle against the vapidness of his own parade of party boats and pearl necklaces. Beauty is in excess in Loro, and it strikes me that perhaps that’s Sorrentino’s goal.
A country as beautiful as Italy, its extensive history of canonical artists and contemporary hub of fashion and pomp; it’s starting to feel as if Sorrentino’s diagnosis of his country is that of an overdose of beauty. There’s a numbness that takes over with the droves of pretty people and gorgeous coastal landscapes that would lead me to believe the filmmaker is railing against the idea of art itself, at times. Because while much of Loro is dedicated to depicting the indulgences of the characters, the film eventually gives way to a piercing of Berlusconi’s flabby, lobster-fed heart.
It’s when Berlusconi’s inner turmoil comes about, his pursuit of something at his advanced age, his pleas and insistence that he wants to help his country. This is when Sorrentino’s aim with Loro complicates. I confess to knowing little of Italian politics, though the headlines of tax-fraud and the studies of his presidency as precedent for the rise of Trumpism in the United States is enough for me, and others, I should think, to be skeptical of the media tyrant. What is it that Sorrentino aims for, then, by giving Servillo scenes of agony while he laments his lost hopes and dreams as Berlusconi? Are we meant to sympathize for the man? Because after more than two and a half hours, I don’t know that I do. We get a good amount of Berlusconi’s strained relationship with his wife Veronica Lario, performed by Elena Sofia Ricci in a great performance. As one of the few women to stand up to Berlusconi’s charm and nonsense, her scenes coming down opposite the mogul are highlights. Though they might be seen as drops in the ocean.
Loro‘s length will likely be the undoing of skeptical audiences. The aforementioned parade of excess that comprises its first half might be a turn-off for some sooner than it was for me, though truly it has its moments of excellence, and eventually gives way to an engaging look inside the workings of a clown-for-president.
Casting aside any unease with how we’re supposed to feel about Berlusconi and his “progress by bulldozing” method of politics, Loro at least gives us an idea of perhaps how it is someone could find themselves swept up by the man’s public image and grandstanding, and in that way maybe Sorrentino’s film is a shade of clever propaganda. Though to what end would one want to be turned on to a misogynist and uber-rich tycoon? It’s a high-wire act, one that could fall flat and splat for a viewer looking for something a little stronger in its narrative thrust.
As it stands, Loro is an ode to excess with punctuations of deeper political intrigue. It has its lulls, but is largely engaging and interesting for its run. The inconsistency only comes with the lengthy runtime, which brings up the split-release the film saw in its home country. In Italy, Loro 1 and Loro 2 released about this time last year, coming to a total of more than 200 minutes of content across two separate films. Though cut by nearly an hour here, the compacted runtime can wear on you.
Yet hours after seeing Loro, I’m only liking it more. Sorrentino’s film has its fair share of instant-gratification; Servillo’s performance (performances, actually, with Servillo playing opposite himself for a scene in a bizarre Berlusconi business pep-talk!), the grab-bag of visual techniques, and the machinations of Italian corruption being some of them. But after the fact we’re given an incredibly balanced film, one whose early excesses of sex and drugs are offset by feelings of loss and gravity.
Loro‘s later scenes feature an incredibly powerful sequence amidst the devastating 2009 earthquake in the city of L’Aquila, its gorgeous cathedral ruined, its people destitute. Loro is a film to chew on for how well Sorrentino is able to shift from gleeful indulgence, drag though it may at times, to soul-wrenching drama. It ends up a character study not only of Berlusconi, but of the Italian people, caught between the breathtaking beauty of their culture and the harrows of modernity that would look to rob them of it.