Before its release, Sorrentino maintained – somewhat disingenuously, in my view – that he was making a film that was neither for nor against Berlusconi, but “a tender look at the weaknesses of an old man”. The great Italian actor TonI Servillo, a frequent Sorrentino collaborator, has had his skull built up to resemble the politician’s gleaming black pate, his teeth polished to an icy gleam and his eyes pulled into a simulation of surgical enhancement. Those points of resemblance were essential, says Servillo. “It is impossible to create Berlusconi otherwise, it’s like playing Churchill without his cigar or glass of Scotch or playing a Gandhi who is not barefoot. You cannot avoid having that black dome stuck to the skull and his 32-carat smile. He has imposed it by the way he presented himself, which I think is even more of a mask than the way we portrayed him.”
Well before we meet the man himself, however, we follow the scheming of an ambitious shyster, Sergio Morra (Riccardo Scamarcio) who tries to win the leader’s favour with a huge harem of glamorous young women he marshals into their pouting positions at those infamous parties. “We came up with the idea of telling the story starting from the point of view of someone who lives at the bottom,” Sorrentino says. “Berlusconi has attracted people who are not the kind of people who usually surround politicians: people who have no talent and who essentially have nothing to offer but aspiration.” According to The Guardian‘s Italian correspondent, Morra rather resembles Gianpaolo Tarantini, who was convicted in 2015 of procuring prostitutes for the bunga bunga parties in return for public contracts.
Thus the title, which simply means “them”. Loro is not just about the triumph of one man’s will. “At some level, Loro could be all of us, even those who didn’t have the strength to propose something that was a real alternative to the rapid spread of a very strong personality,” Sorrentino told the trade magazine Variety. “Because it’s undeniable that Berlusconi has a very strong charisma.” Above all, according to the film, the public Berlusconi was and is a salesman, a charming rogue offering whatever swaps, bribes and concessions would close a deal. “That is what he created for himself, so we tried to find what was underneath that representation of a larger-than-life figure: the human dimension, if there was one.”
That idea in itself is anathema to many of Berlusconi’s detractors, who may think that no more attention should be paid to the old monster. Sorrentino maintains that his film is hardly going to affect his popularity at this stage of the game.What is more important that we reach some understanding of what makes a demagogue tick. “And if aspects of this film bother an audience,” says Sorrentino, “that is a crucial step on the way to that understanding.”
The most bothersome aspect of Loro, much debated in the Italian press, is the extended party sequences where bevies of young women cavort and carouse in an attempt to attract patronage, if not from the great papa, then from some of his slavering dependants. We see acres of carefully farmed female flesh, endless transactional sex, casual groping, automatic grabbing. Rolling Stone‘s Italian critic dismissed the film as “a porn film without a moral issue”.
By the time Sorrentino and Servillo reach the Toronto Film Festival, they are clearly weary of being accused of making an exploitation flick. “I don’t want to place myself on a pedestal,” says Sorrentino wearily, “but this is a very low type of controversy that I don’t think is worth discussing. I think the feeling, the emotion that pervades the party where the girls go up to Berlusconi is an unavoidable sadness. The starting point is sad and it is wrong. And I think this is something, a pervasive sadness that garnishes the scene, that is authentic.”
He did address the ethics of display, however, when the controversy first surged. He might have choreographed these events on screen, he pointed out, but he didn’t make them up. Pleasure, spectacle and the currency of the female body were essential operating tools in a political culture of tissue-thin superficiality; running the state was just another game show. “This film is about a triumph of vulgarity,” Sorrentino told Vulture. “I don’t think it should be my job to say, ‘Look how ugly vulgarity is’ … It’s necessary to show the beauty of vulgarity. It is beautiful. Why else would it be so popular? I am more interested in interrogating what is so attractive about a life we can also find repulsive.”
It was a very specific time, the late Berlusconi period. Its echoes are everywhere, however; Sorrentino doesn’t see his story as particularly Italian. “Berlusconi has created a great deal of his fortune by exploiting his sympathetic qualities, his likeability,” he says. “Unfortunately, a lot of politicians who have followed him have also done this. This is today’s news: The New York Times published an anonymous letter from someone close to Donald Trump, one of his staff, saying ‘we have to rein in Trump or else he is going to do something crazy’. So this is on the international scale. It is a very low form of politics.”