Watching “Loro 2” is a peculiar experience, because it never shakes the sense of being hurriedly edited from a much longer and better film. In some ways that’s what this is: the second part of Paolo Sorrentino’s initial Italian-release version of his highly anticipated semi-fantasy biopic of Silvio Berlusconi. Yet even if the two parts were viewed close together – they were released on the peninsula one week apart – the lack of buildup for a masterful early scene in “2” proves just how ill-considered it was to divide the movie in this way. In addition, it seems clear that a great number of scenes have been so severely cut down that they barely register. Taken as a whole, the film is a classic Sorrentino-esque tapestry about hubris woven on a grand scale, but when it’s divided and edited in this manner one is constantly aware that the effect was meant to be much greater.
The recent announcement that Toronto will screen a newly edited single version of 2 hours 25 minutes (to then be released again in Italy so it qualifies for the Oscars) is potentially good news, though it’s doubtful this incarnation will erase the impression that what’s really desired is an even grander magnum opus that could have brought major and minor motifs together into a more rhythmically fluid panorama. It’s likely the material exists, but of course commercial prospects for a potentially four-hour (or more) release would have been minuscule. As it is, “Loro 1” and “2” did decent business at home, with “2” predictably seeing a million-dollar-plus decline from “1.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise of “Loro 2” lies in how Sorrentino wraps it up, not with an impassioned screed against Berlusconi and the society he’s fostered but with a coda of overwhelming sadness. Quite suddenly there’s no rant, no polemic: just an end note of profound melancholy for a country that allowed itself to be transformed by an unethical huckster whose self-interest has always been the guiding light of his political tenure. By choosing to conclude the film in the aftermath of the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, Sorrentino astutely flakes the scab off one of Italy’s more recent wounds, thereby tapping into the kind of dark and nagging bitterness that sits deep in the pit of the national stomach. Offshore audiences unfamiliar with the criminal mishandling of the quake’s consequences, and Berlusconi’s role in the abandonment of an entire city, won’t feel the gut punch that exists for all Italians, but they too can’t fail to grasp the director’s powerful and unexpected shift into emotional desolation.
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The contrast between beginning and end couldn’t be greater given that “2” opens with a shot of Tamara (Euridice Axen), poolside, casually shaving her pubic hair in full view of her young son. They’re at the Sardinian villa rented by her husband, Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who’s about to stage a party stocked with sultry women in order to get close to neighbor Berlusconi (Toni Servillo). The shindig is the film’s centerpiece, replete with stunning vixens in revealing clothes strutting their stuff, but unlike the saturnalia in “The Great Beauty,” Sorrentino deliberately drains the would-be orgy of all energy – this is a boring bash. The ladies are bored, and Berlusconi is far from titillated, given that he’s used to throwing bunga bunga parties at home.
Making Sergio’s revel a dull affair was a risky calculation on Sorrentino’s part, but totally appropriate as it shows the hollowness of the flashy hedonism for which Berlusconi is best known. The night ends in frustration for all: Sergio’s dream of access to power crumbles, would-be procuress Kira (Kasia Smutniak) realizes she’s gone beyond Berlusconi’s preferred sell-by date, and even the great man himself comes away unsatisfied when fresh-faced Stella (Alice Pagani), the sole figure unseduced by power, rejects his advances and tells him he could be her grandfather.
That tête-à-tête is one of several beautifully written conversations that burrow into Berlusconi’s psyche, and despite an extravagant disclaimer at the start about artistic license, followers of the Italian political scene will understandably nod their heads in satisfied acknowledgment of the scriptwriters’ insight into the real man. The first of these inspired skewerings comes early on when Berlusconi, on a whim, impersonates a real estate agent and blind-calls a woman pretending to sell her a home — or rather, to sell her a dream. With his face fixed in a near permanent smile (something that sharply differentiates him from Trump), he relishes his role as the ultimate shyster, as adept at unloading an unbuilt development as he is at hawking an image of success and virility to the nation. The only problem with the scene is that it comes too soon — in the single-film version it might have the appropriate lead-up, but here at the start of “2” its placement feels jarring.
There’s another piece of dialogue, this time toward the end, that cuts through the carefully constructed smoke screen to lay bare the man’s pumped-up self-importance. It’s a conversation between him and his wife Veronica (Elena Sofia Ricci) when she asks him for a divorce. Each of Sorrentino’s films features a key moment, usually a monologue, in which the protagonist’s true nature is revealed, and here a weary Veronica exposes his pathetic character with economic thrusts made more sanguineous because “Loro 1” shows a moment when she really did love him. This is the only time Berlusconi loses his temper, which makes sense since Veronica is the one person who knows every weak spot in his superannuated ego.
While all performances are strong, and Servillo as usual is a chameleon marvel, Ricci steals the show: Amid all the phoniness and posturing, she’s the one real figure, and her disgust with the man she joined her life to can, to a generous mind, be representative of those in Italy who’ve woken up to the realization that their former leader is a canny showman whose sleaziness has finally hit home. Well, that might just be wishful thinking.