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Non-Review Review: Loro

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Loro is certainly a Paolo Sorrentino film.

Loro is an interesting watch removed from its original context. It is nominally a biographical film covering the most defining Italian politician of the twenty-first century, Silvio Berlusconi. In reality, it feels like an attempt at something broader, a sweeping commentary on corruption and moral decay that just happens to exist (like so much of contemporary Italian culture, the film suggests) in the orbit of that towering figure. The film was originally released in Italy as a duology running a total of three-hours-and-one-quarter, Sorrentino combined both halves and cut forty-five minutes from the total runtime for international distribution.

It is a difficult film to parse outside of that context. It is difficult to tell if some of the gaps and hiccups in the film are down to the necessity of trimming a quarter of the runtime or simply due to the “inside baseball” nature of a film based around the national politics of a different country. This is not to suggest that Loro is impenetrable or nonsensical without any background knowledge. Indeed, Sorrentino goes out of his way to frame Loro as a universal story about concepts like sex, power, desire, and age. However, watching the film, it feels like there are gaps and lacunas in the narrative. Despite its extended runtime, Loro feels truncated.

And yet, in spite of these gaps, Loro has an incredible infectious energy that sustains it. While perhaps a little too unfocused and perhaps a little too simplistic, it is never anything less than compelling in its absurd study of power and corruption. Loro doesn’t necessarily have a lot to say, but it makes a point to say it all very well.

Silvio Berlusconi is the void at the heart of Loro. Characters speak of the Prime Minister in hushed tones, the central character casting so large a shadow that uttering his name is hardly necessary. Sometimes other characters call him “Silvio”, but mostly people allude to “him.” Indeed, one of his mistresses keeps his number in her phone as “Lui” – which translates as “him.” The name is beside the point, even in those rare cases where clarification is needed. “It’s him,” one character gasps. “‘Him’ him?” another inquires. The logic underpinning these exchanges is obvious. Who else could it possibly be, after all? How could it not be “him”?

In the world of Loro, Silvio Berlusconi is presented as the fountainhead. From “him” flow all things. In keeping with Sorrentino’s recurring fixation with Catholic imagery, it is even tempting to capitalise “Him”, so central is the character to the culture of corruption and decay that exists around him. Even the title “Loro” hints at this divide – there is “lui” and “loro”, there is “him” and “them.” There is Berlusconi and there is everything exists outside of himself. The first forty-five minutes or so of Loro treat Berlusconi as an absent centre, focusing on an up-and-coming political operator named Sergio Morra who is inspired by a divine vision (of sorts) to pursue “him”, to get drawn into “his” web. Berlusconi is at once the target of religious pilgrimage and an object of almost sexual fantasy.

The sequences with Sergio are strange. They seem to exist purely to define Berlusconi by his absence, to trace an outline around the black hole at the centre of the film. There is a strong sense, watching the international cut, that a lot of material was removed from this section of the film, even though it was necessary to preserve the structure of delaying Berlusconi’s introduction. Indeed, Sergio is perhaps the least satisfying narrative element of Loro. He is defined and given an arc, but is quickly pushed to the margins of the narrative before being brought back into focus towards the end. He feels more like a structural conceit than a character in his own right, either in need of more or less attention depending on how the film intended to use him.

However, even allowing for the narrative dead-end that is Sergio’s plot, the opening forty-five minutes of Loro are strangely hypnotic. Perhaps inspired by Martin Scorsese’s work on The Wolf of Wall Street, those opening forty-five minutes are a delirious ode to tasteless excess. They are full of sex and drugs, of beautiful women dancing and handsome men in fine suits, all scored to trance beats that provide a strangely soothing rhythm. Sorrentino is very much in his element, with an incredible eye for beauty. The hedonism on display in Loro is incredibly alluring, suggesting the raw appeal of sex and power. It is indulgent, but that indulgence is very much the point.

Indeed, it is interesting how Sorrentino later chooses to subvert this set-up. Scorsese tends to deconstruct such fantasies through brutality or violence, by focusing on the consequences of such an immoral lifestyle on those people who live it. In contrast, Sorrentino suggests something decidedly more ambiguous. The worst thing about all this seductive and alluring hedonism, Sorrentino suggests, is not the harm that it causes. Instead, at a certain point, it just becomes pathetic. “We should stay here forever,” characters repeatedly suggest in an MDMA-fueled orgy early in the film. This sequence is juxtaposed with a sequence later that suggests Berlusconi has stayed there forever. It’s not exciting, it’s not thrilling, it’s not sexy. It is just sad.

In the world of Loro, that is just as damning as any actual material consequences of corruption or moral decay. At a certain point, hedonism ceases to be pleasurable and instead becomes an old man wandering around his estate watching women a third his age gyrate for his amusement to music that suddenly doesn’t sound as good any more. One of the recurring motifs in Loro is the sound of a ringing phone, a reminder of the world outside the perpetual party. Maybe it is always ringing, but it sounds repeatedly over the course of the film. Inevitably, the sound of the phone will break through the delirium and the ecstasy. No matter how one might try to avoid it, the call always has to be answered.

Even when Berlusconi eventually appears in the film, he still feels like something of an absent centre. Tony Servillo is great in the role, playing a man who has a bit of folk wisdom or a quote for any situation, and who genuinely believes that a lie stated with enough authority will become the truth to whoever hears it. (Even, the film implies, himself.) Berlusconi is repeatedly characterised as “the greatest salesman in Italy”, one who take pleasure in selling his wares to anybody who might come across his path; footballers, housewives, the Italian public. This is a man so vacuous that he chooses what version of public address to air by watching the tapes with the sound off; what is actually being said is meaningless, what matters is what is being sold.

There is something deliberately uncanny about Tony Servillo as Berlusconi, buried under mountains of make-up and resembling a refugee from Spitting Image that somehow escaped to the real world. He looks almost like he’s made of plastic, standing out even amid the bizarre wonderland that he has created on his estate. Sorrentino consciously plays into this sense of unreality, at one point casting Servillo in a (relatively minor) supporting role as businessman Ennio Doris. It is a casting choice that seems to exist simply to allow for the incongruity of two versions of Servillo under two different kinds of heavy make-up having breakfast together. Whatever Berlusconi might be in Loro, he seems something “other.” Maybe something “more”, maybe something “less.”

That said, Loro is perhaps a little reductive in its psychology. The film’s central thesis statement seems to be that Silvio Berlusconi is motivated by nothing more than the twin Freudian impulses of eros and thanatos. The dialogue is perhaps less subtle than the imagery, with Berlusconi‘s put-upon wife often forced to serve as the film’s moral mouthpiece. “Do you ever contemplate the void?” she asks her husband at one point, as they float idly across the ocean on a stalled jet ski. Later, she warns her husband, “You are old and afraid of death.” The film argues that Berlusconi is motivated by “his heart and his prostate.” Hardly the most astute observation.

Then again, that may well be the point. Sorrentino seems to be trying to make a much broader philosophical point about age and vitality. (Indeed, the way in which the film treats Berlusconi suggests that he might serve as an avatar for some wider commentary on age and life.) Loro is styled like a cartoon, like a hornier and more existential-ier version of Vice. (The heavy make-up on the lead and the pop sensibility all but invites the comparison.) It might have a more urgent and more specific meaning to somebody better versed in the intricacies of Italian politics, but there is something to be said for using a framework like this for a reflective meditation on mortality. Loro doesn’t always work as a biting piece of political satire, but it works as something more universal.

More than that, Loro works phenomenally well on a scene-to-scene basis, which is an important for a film of its length. Indeed, Loro is occasionally more memorable as a collection of scenes than as a coherent narrative. There are any number of great gags, often stemming from incongruities and surreal contrasts; allegorical imagery involving lambs and rats, the heightened dream logic of the estate that Berlusconi has built for himself, a recurring joke of a volcano eruption that is long-promised and perpetually postponed. An extended sequence in which Berlusconi tries to get his mojo back by cold-calling a random stranger is a cinematic highlight of the year.

Loro doesn’t work that well on a consistent basis, often meandering or drifting and occasionally losing focus on the character supposedly at its centre. Even when Loro doesn’t quite click, it’s still a beautiful film.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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