Paolo Sorrentino announced himself on the international stage with the sterling Il Divo, a study of Italy’s perennial mover and fixer Giulio Andreotti and in the process an evisceration of the Italian political class, with a style that oscillated between Quentin Tarantino and Federico Fellini.
Since then Sorrentino’s career has been fireworks and squibs in almost equal measure. His first foray into English language cinema saw Sean Penn in Robert Smith cosplay misstepping his way through a languorous road movie in This Must Be the Place, before returning to Rome with the bloated but impressive The Great Beauty. His reputation as a great visual stylist and sardonic wit seemed established but in Youth and his HBO show The Young Pope, striking visuals soon became their own justification and character and story played very much second fiddle to the glories of music, colour and light.
Some looked to his latest, Loro, as a potential return to the world of Il Divo and his early glory days, but the fact is the film has all the flaws of its subject. Just like Berlusconi, it is misogynistic, tacky, morally and politically vacuous. Again, like Silvio, it thinks it’s funny, but it most assuredly isn’t. The disaster can partly be seen in its release history with Cannes allegedly turning it down and Italians getting the film divided into two separate parts, each clocking in at over 100 minutes, and the UK getting a cobbled-together 150-minute version. The tone is set when a sheep enters Berlusconi’s villa and, distracted by a garish game show, is frozen to death by the air conditioning. It’s not a frog in a pan being brought to the boil but you get the metaphorical picture with all the subtlety of Mussolini shouting in your ear.
Berlusconi (Toni Servillo) is in the twilight of his power. Foisted from government, he wanders his Sardinian villa and its air-conditioned interiors and emerald lawns a man at a loss. His wife Veronica (Elena Sofia Ricci) no longer loves him and the permanent smile creaks on the perma-tanned face like a mask. Still, he manages to quip and sing his favourite crooning hits with the accompaniment of an old friend on guitar and it’s obvious who Sorrentino sympathises with.
Berlusconi is another example of the species aged roue which Servillo played in The Great Beauty, the same smarm and weary charm. Meanwhile, the Italy that Berlusconi has guided and formed in his own image goes to pieces – literally in the case of a final act earthquake in Abruzzo. A young drug dealer Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio) seeks to get himself a harem of young party-going women with the aid of one of Berlusconi’s former lovers (Kasia Smutniak), as a way of fashioning his own entrance into the Berlusconi’s orbit and the power held by ‘loro’ – them.
In one of the final scenes a stone statue of Christ is hoisted from the ruins of a church destroyed by the earthquake. It is an obvious and unearned quotation of the beginning of Fellini’s masterpiece La Dolce Vita, when a helicopter carries a crucifix over Rome. But Sorrentino sees only the panache of the visual. There’s no morality here in the midst of the corruption. There’s nothing but a nihilistic disdain. Drugs are an infomercial. Sex – even rape – is transactional. All politics is dishonest and venal. Innocence is a girl in a silver bikini.
Where the film might be expected to say something there is a bestiary of obvious metaphorical intent (add to the sheep a giant rat) and another track from the shuffle of Sorrentino’s soundtrack/playlist. At least Berlusconi is entertaining. He has a merry-go-round and a model volcano, he surely can’t be all bad, can he? Ultimately, Sorrentino’s sympathies lie with Berlusconi because – in their vacuity and their need to impress – they have something in common.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty