We remember Caligula and Nero for their Roman depravity. But the two most notorious emperors of ancient Rome seem more timeless when you consider what fed their appetites.
The emptiness of oligarchy and a ruling kleptocracy feels both distinctly Italian and innately universal in “Loro,” Paolo Sorrentino’s film of the latter years of the TV tycoon turned politician Silvio Berlusconi.
For it, Sorrentino (“Youth,” TV’s “The Young Pope”) goes back to his earlier political film “Il Divo,” a fantasia on the twisted career of seven-time prime minister Giulio Andreotti. But he summons up thoughts of “Caligula” and “La Dolce Vita” in the excesses, the emotional remove and timelessly Italian resignation of it all this time around.
The old Italian lecturing idealistic American airmen in Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” was onto something. Short-sighted, as easily manipulated by the right demagogue at the right moment as anybody else, Italy will endure this war and this Allied/American “crusade,” the wizened one says with a laugh.
And we Italians never learn, adds Sorrentino, any more than anybody else. That’s why “Loro” feels like a picture from the very recent Italian past that provides a prism to break down the harsh light of the present day world.
What was Berlusconi but a template for Trump, Johnson and the rest?
The title “Loro” is both a literal “them” in the eternal “them vs. us” struggle, and a play on “L’oro,” the Italian word for gold. The gilded corruption and vapidity of those who seek the inside dealing, the financial rewards and sexual favors of the ruling circle frames “Loro,” even if Sorrentino loses track of that, here and there.
In this two-part film compressed into one for non-Italian audiences, we meet Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a craven hustler trying to make his mark in Taranto.
He describes himself as “a talent scout,” but what that amounts to is procuring women — including a seemingly compliant “gymnast” — for lecherous old men in positions of power. It’s how he “fixes” a school cafeteria contract for his father’s company in the opening scene. Dad, who “never pays bribes,” is outraged.
“What’s wrong with your father?” a pol wants to know (in Italian, with English subtitles).
“He’s honest and upright.”
That isn’t Sergio. He’s got his eyes on the prize — a prime governmental appointment. To get there, he will use the “gymnast” and others he procures to get close to Kira (Kasia Smutniak). It doesn’t matter than “She’s meaner than Putin.” She’s his access to Berlusconi. She’s been his mistress.
Oh “him,” she says, being coy?
“HIM him…You don’t know what I’d give to meet ‘Him.'”
But Sergio’s story takes a back seat when Silvio himself shows up. Toni Servillo of “Gomorrah,” and Sorrentino’s “Il Divo” and “The Great Beauty” makes Berlusconi a riveting presence, larger than life, a media mogul who insists to his fellow Italians on his “self-made” status, when in reality his father loaned him “millions” to get him on the road to being Europe’s answer to Rupert Murdoch.
Yes, that sounds familiar.
His onetime trophy wife, Veronica (Elena Sofia Ricci) has been with him long enough to know the truth, that the pasted-on smile, perma-tan and ostentatious displays of wealth are the shimmering gilding on a vapid lump.
Berlusconi is out of power at the moment, and not content to flit from mansion to mansion, superyacht to superyacht while the masses watch his TV networks’ game shows, his version of “bread and circuses.”
His cronies want to get back in the game and back in the money. Use your charm, your promises and whatever to “turn” several senators and “bring down the government.”
He has a chance because he is gregarious and charming, but also slippery and ruthless, a man of vast resources. And he understands the men in this man’s world.
“Men are slaves to infantile temptations…They do not see the future.”
The fifty shades of empty sexual exploits of the gaggle of gargoyles beholden to Berlusconi demonstrate that here. One encounter borders on rape. He knows his cronies well.
Sergio’s “access” is based on talent procurement, supplying legions of pliable young women to be Silvio’s audience as he leads them in sing-alongs, trots out his magnetism at baccanales that he doesn’t so much host or organize as preside over. The dirty work, traceable as it is, is left to others.
When pundits speak of Donald Trump “not wanting to govern” (a common jab at Berlusconi), but merely angling, conniving and looting to be a part of this one percent of the one percent, oligarchs sealed off from the world, showing “the common touch” when they want to be worshipped, Berlusconi is the role model such men have in mind.
Sorrentino lets Veronica score points about how gauche and unproductive her husband of 20 years is (he is 70, she just turned 50). When a would-be young conquest (Alice Pagani) wholly aware of why she’s been summoned to this party, speaks of him having “my grandfather’s breath,” the man looks as ridiculous as any shriveled mogul with a pole-dancing coed holding up his ancient arm.
But on the whole, Berlusconi gets off easily here, his Weinstein-esque sexual predations played down. Yes, he likes his models scantily clad, dancing and acting-out lesbian makeout fantasies.
The women come off, if anything, worse. The system, the Church and the culture have reduced them to this, limited in their path to power and wealth. So they submit to being “procured.”
“He’s not as short as they say,” one rationalizes.
“He drives me mad when he dresses like an admiral!” another coos.
“Loro” is fictionalized and very “inside baseball,” so a non-Italian will not know which Bond-villain attired aide or faded gigolo is being depicted (many names were changed). Editing the two films that made up the release in Italy makes this feel ungainly, muting the impact of a bracing return-to-power/greeted by an Earthquake finale.
It’s a lush fantasy version of Berlusconi and his bubble world, the gold-plated “them” of the title — “Loro.” That’s a recipe for leaving the viewer visually and informationally overwhelmed.
And the framing device, hapless Sergio and his recruited “talent,” leaves us craving closure. In a thriller he is Sammy Glick from “What Makes Sammy Run?” He’s the wronged striver who, in the third act, pulls the trigger.
That never happened, or hasn’t yet. Berlusconi is now 82 and still in “the game.” So “closure” will have to wait until the “next” revolution.
MPAA Rating: unrated, nudity, sexual violence
Cast: Toni Servillo, Elena Sofia Ricci, Kasia Smutniak, Alice Pagani and Riccardo Scamarcio
Credits: Directed by Paolo Sorrentino, script by Paolo Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello. An IFC release.
Running time: 2:35