After Paolo Sorrentino’s virtuoso evisceration of Italian politician Giulio Andreotti in “Il Divo,” expectations were sky high that the distinctive director would bring a similar caustic bravura to his treatment of Silvio Berlusconi. Yet “Loro 1,” the first of a two-part kaleidoscopic consideration of the four-time prime minister and the Italy he fostered, is not so much an invigorating acid bath as a subtly written, stylistically more classical look at one of the most divisive European leaders in recent memory. It aims to peer not just into Berlusconi’s monomaniacal soul, but to expose, as with “The Great Beauty,” the apotheosis of vulgarity and craving for attention that’s been the canny politician and media magnate’s lasting imprint on Italian society.
Whether it’s successful depends very much on “Loro 2,” to be released in Italy on May 10, roughly two weeks after this installment. Rumor has it the distributors didn’t know how to package the movie, and judging from the first part, one can speculate that releasing the whole as a single relatively long film, as will be done internationally, will pack a far greater punch than splitting it in two.
Alternating between sharp-witted and unexpectedly tender, “Loro 1” feels very much like a lead-up to something, introducing characters and situations to be further developed in “2.” It is an expectedly rich tapestry nonetheless, although Sorrentino’s fondness for gyrating nubile women feels more repetitive than it did in “The Great Beauty,” notwithstanding the importance of parties in Berlusconi’s biography.
That the director has chosen to make a movie about more than the man but the legacy of that man is clear from the title, “Loro,” meaning “them.” Those referred to by the title are the movers and shakers who’ve benefited from Berlusconi’s hold on power — though the film might better have been called “Them and Us,” since it’s impossible to critique one stratum of the pyramid without questioning the role played by the general population in sustaining the whole polluted structure. Italians will recognize this along with innumerable references to Berlusconi’s well-known story, and “Loro 1” is doing decent but not stellar business on the peninsula. How it will play outside, in a shorter, combined re-edited version, remains to be seen, though it seems unlikely to be the international sensation of “Il Divo” or “The Great Beauty.”
Sorrentino’s mastery of the unexpected visual shock is deliciously in evidence from the moment the title appears, when wheeler-dealer Sergio Morra (Riccardo Scamarcio) celebrates the conclusion of a bribery deal by anally penetrating prostitute/gymnast Candida (Carolina Binda), becoming even more turned on once he notices the tattoo of Berlusconi’s face on her jiggling behind. It’s the perfect encapsulation of the film’s underlying theme: power as aphrodisiac, and the hunger for power is even more addictive than the cocaine so liberally snorted in countless scenes. Berlusconi is the ultimate broker – he’s frequently referred to simply as “lui,” or “him” – so getting into his inner circle becomes the supreme goal for everyone on the make.
Sergio has two ways: One is through high-class call girl Kira (Kasia Smutniak, never more bewitching), who proposes that he become Berlusconi’s next procurer of young flesh, in a clear challenge to glorified pimp Fabrizio Sala (Roberto De Francesco). The other is via ex-minister Santino Recchia (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), led from the crotch by Sergio’s brash wife Tamara (Euridice Axen) in expectation of access to Berlusconi. Even though the billionaire is no longer Prime Minister (“Loro 1” begins in 2006, after Berlusconi’s third time leading the government), he remains a key player in the country’s political and financial miasma. While paying lip service to Berlusconi, Santino wants to be the next leader of the center-right, engineering the support of wealthy power broker Cupa Caiafa (astutely played by Anna Bonaiuto).
Fittingly for a film called “Them” rather than “Him,” it takes some time before the magnate appears on screen, and when he does, he’s disguised as a kind of Caucasian houri, as a surprise to his wife Veronica Lario (Elena Sofia Ricci) in their Sardinian villa. Naturally Berlusconi is inhabited by Sorrentino’s muse Toni Servillo, the shapeshifting star who once again transforms himself not simply with the help of prostheses and hair dye, but through his exceptional physicality (one thing he can’t do however is match Berlusconi’s height – the actor is half a foot taller than the politician). With his face quasi-permanently fixed in a Gwynplaine smile that disarms his interlocutors while also establishing a mocking superiority, Servillo plays the billionaire as a smooth-talking charmer who disguises his ruthlessness behind the toothy grin.
What’s surprising is how Sorrentino and co-writer Umberto Contarello imagine the relationship between Berlusconi and his wife. At first diffident, isolating herself behind books by Joseph Brodsky and José Saramago, Veronica remains unmoved by her husband’s pronouncements. Yet at the end of “Loro 1,” just when we might expect something particularly biting, the couple are seen in a moment of genuine affection. It’s not that the film soft-pedals the politician’s narcissism or thirst for maintaining power, but it does offer moments of quasi-normality, humanizing the man in a way that makes his crudeness and cupidity even more insidious.
As expected, Sorrentino offers up a stunning buffet of exceptional location work, set off by moments of unforeseen magic, such as when a garbage truck swerves to avoid a rat and plunges into the Roman Forum as a bevy of young women look on. “Loro 1” boasts a tremendous amount of exposed female flesh, which will offend some, but is perhaps justified given Berlusconi’s role in propagating objectification in all levels of society (when he was last Prime Minister, a nationwide poll found that the majority of young women wanted to be the kinds of bimbo showgirls seen on his television stations). Once again Luca Bigazzi’s camerawork glides magisterially through spaces immaculately lit with a golden aura, offset by colder lighting. While musical choices are, as always, spot on, there’s no single memorable tune or track.