‘Loro’ Film Review: Paolo Sorrentino Spins a Gloriously Messy Yarn About Berlusconi

The director of “The Great Beauty” and “Youth” returns with a film that fluctuates between brash and silly, profound and misguided

Gianni Fiorito/IFC

“Loro” is the definitive Paolo Sorrentino film to date. It’s brash, stylish, and silly. It oscillates back and forth between horny and human, profound and misguided. It’s a glorious mess. That it exists in the #MeToo era is a miracle. That it manages to evolve beyond a dick-swinging affair is even more miraculous.

In the vein of “The Great Beauty,” “Youth” and “The Young Pope,” the film is sprawling and idiosyncratic. This time Sorrentino centers his story on Silvio Berlusconi, the infamous medial mogul and former prime minister of Italy. But this is not your standard cradle-to-grave biopic.

The film toggles back and forth between Silvio and Sergio, a youthful businessman determined to impress Silvio. Sergio works primarily as a glorified pimp, trafficking escorts to bribe politicians for permits and favors. When he’s not knee-deep in a line of cocaine or anonymous women, he has ambition. The kind of ambition that’s neither pure nor noble.

Sergio has no interest in making the world a better place. He’s candid about his lust for fame and fortune by any means necessary. The actor, Riccardo Scamarcio plays Sergio like Tony Curtis in “Sweet Smell of Success.” A spine couldn’t be located if you conducted a CT scan on him. He’s unscrupulous and unrelenting, which makes him (initially) spellbinding.

Sorrentino works his magic to lure us in. The cutting in “Loro” is characteristically sublime. Quick, rhythmic, economical. It’s a hypnotizing contrast to the aesthetic presentation, which is ostentatious, bordering on gaudy. What’s undeniable about a Paulo Sorrentino movie is that you cannot be bored by a Paulo Sorrentino movie. He fills the frame with sex, drugs, and EDM. The camera glides through bacchanals, making each viewer a voyeur of sorts. The colors are lush; the production design is breathtaking. Italy has rarely looked so stunning and soulless. “Loro” satirizes affluence by bathing in it. It may be impossible to leave a Sorrentino jaunt not feeling a little bit mischievous.

This is in large part due to Sorrentino’s depiction of Silvio, played by Toni Servillo of “The Great Beauty.” Berlusconi’s misgivings have been well-documented in both the papers and tabloids: The corruption, affairs, drugs. There are so many reported stories about Silvio that Wikipedia had to create a separate page for him called, “Controversies Surrounding Silvio Berlusconi.” He’s become a punchline for pundits and late-night hosts.

As a result, it’s impossible to avoid carrying baggage into this film, especially when “Loro” fixates on the baggage. Everything you’ve heard and more is jammed into “Loro.” Diversion aside, Berlusconi would appear to have three primary objectives: 1) to be the wealthiest man in Italy, 2) the prime minister of his homeland, and 3) loved by everyone he rules.

Sorrentino refuses to make this man sympathetic. He’s not a villain, either. In lesser hands, the character would fall into these two unrealistically tidy categories; “Loro” works best in these tender interludes, where Silvio’s malevolence is rendered meaningful. One of the highlights arrives at the tail-end. Silvio is the main attraction of another party. His wife is out of town, perhaps permanently. At the head of the table he regales guests, mostly young women, with his jokes. They laugh politely upon the delivery of a punchline. Eventually dinner drifts to dancing. Silvio watches from afar. Young people are gyrating to club music.

Collectively they do a good job of feigning excitement. And then, eventually, Silvio’s voyeuristic gaze lands on Stella (Alice Pagani). She’s not dancing. In fact, she hasn’t left the dinner table. She sits alone, isolated, clearly confounded by the gathering. Eager to please everyone, Silvio asks her to dance. She gently declines and goes to the bathroom. The interaction could end here, and there’d be plenty to mull over. But this isn’t Sorrentino’s inclination. He’s a director who presents palpable dynamics and then proceeds to unpack them.

The film cuts to Silvio watching Stella asleep in a twin-sized bed. She awakes. His objectifying observation feels at once predatory and pathetic. He doesn’t wish to hurt her, and he won’t. He just wants her to like him. On the surface this is a moment between an aging politician and a college student who could give a damn about his desires. But there’s more to it and these people. “Loro” doesn’t all build up to this scene, it simply is built-in.

The film’s central idea seems to be about the painful process of aging. Silvio’s desire, ultimately, is to stay young and desirable. Ruby spots the desperation. She doesn’t pity him. She finds him repulsive. Hell, she finds herself partially repulsive for even attending such an event. Unlike in the two hours leading up to this scene, his virility is no longer charming or entertaining.

As the movie plays itself out, Silvio embodies a Trump-ian figure, a man who’s more interested in pageantry than politics. Silvio’s self-proclaimed business acumen, salesman-like approach to human interaction, and carnal cravings feel less like comedy and more like a bleak reality. Sorrentino doesn’t merely satirize his subject, though. There’s a critique of us, the complicit viewers and voters. Silvio isn’t wholly responsible for who he is and what he has done. He has received encouragement in the form of attention, admiration and TV subscriptions.

It does not matter that, by the end of the film, he longer fascinates or intrigues us. It does not matter that the bombast has bursted and the facade has eroded. Some may find the final half-hour of “Loro” to mercilessly drag. I believe anyone who feels that way is feeling precisely what Sorrentino intended. It does drag. It is uncomfortable. You will want to stop watching Silvio frolicking around. But once you’ve fed the beast it’s not so easy to put down. It’s grown stronger and more ravenous, emboldened by those who howl its name like an incantation. Which is to say: the channel can only be changed once we change.