Oscar-winning Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film, “Loro,” which depicts former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s so-called “bunga bunga” antics, has just been released as a two-part film in Italy. “Loro 1” bowed at No. 2, behind “Avengers: Infinity War,” while “Loro 2” will be released next Thursday. The project is being pared down to a single feature-length film for international distribution.
Sorrentino spoke to Variety about the hurdles he faced, his attempt to get to the real Berlusconi, and why it’s only fair that Cannes is a bus to which you can’t have a lifelong pass. (The interview has been edited for concision and clarity.)
Why did you decide to make a movie about Berlusconi and how big was the challenge?
It was not an easy movie to write. You don’t have the same creative freedom as in a totally fictional film. You’re limited by the fact that you have to contend with real characters. You can’t wound, offend, libel.
The idea for a film about Berlusconi came to me and grew during the years when Berlusconi was present among us. For many years, a large portion of Italians loved him while another substantial portion hated him. He sparked very strong, completely contrasting feelings. My ambition was to depict him and also some of the Italians who tried to follow his path and become connected to him any way they could.
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Can you explain the title, which translates as “Them”?
The title is exactly that. It’s not saying: “I’m different, and they are like that.” At some level, “Loro” could be all of us, even those who didn’t have the strength to propose something that was a real alternative to the rapid spread of a very strong personality, because it’s undeniable that Berlusconi has a very strong charisma.
You’ve said your tone was one of tenderness, driven by a desire to understand the man.
Yes. He’s always had this narrative about himself as someone driven by uncommon pride, by an iron will, by an indestructible determination. We’ve never understood whether behind this there were some pockets of pain, of failure, of melancholy. So I thought it would be more interesting to look at those feelings rather than do a political narrative, which is past deadline anyway.
There are a lot of naked female bodies in the film, which of course reflects the bunga bunga period. But some Italian critics have said you harped on the titillating aspect a bit much, in a way that could be perceived as exploitation. What’s your response?
I don’t agree. It’s the representation of a certain specific period 10 years ago, a world that had a rather limited intellectual component and relied on bodies as a communication tool. That’s a fact that I didn’t make up. I just put it on screen.
What kind of contact have you had with Berlusconi?
We met once before I started shooting. He invited me for lunch and half-jokingly asked me if I wanted to use his villas [as locations] and I cordially declined the offer. The role-playing [game] in these cases dictates that you do not enter into relations with the person you are depicting; it would make things confusing for the audience.
Why is the movie in two parts in Italy?
From the outset I wrote a single film that was very long, and I also thought about the possibility of making two films. Then we decided to make it in two parts. But that doesn’t mean I’m not persevering in making a single version. Tomorrow I will be back in the editing room to finish the single version.
What happened with Cannes?
I had a one-picture version of the film that was very much in progress. It was probably not the perfect version you need to go to a festival. I think the answer is the one [Cannes artistic director Thierry] Fremaux gave, which is that [for him] the idea of a film that’s split into two parts and not ready to be seen as a single film made it in some way incomplete.
It’s obvious that everyone wants to go to Cannes. But even though as a director I’m a veteran, Cannes is not a bus that all you need to do is get a [long-term] pass to get on it every time. And that’s the way it should be.