'Loro' ('Them'): Film Review | TIFF 2018

Courtesy of TIFF
A richly inventive, ferocious feast of satire and vulgarity.

Director Paolo Sorrentino ('The Great Beauty', 'The Young Pope') turns his sights on Silvio Berlusconi, portrayed with lights and shadows by Toni Servillo.

The Toronto Film Festival unveiled the international cut of Paolo Sorrentino’s visceral, grotesque and graphically vulgar portrait of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Loro (Them.) In Italy, Loro was released last spring in two parts, with Loro 1 lasting 104 minutes and Loro 2 clocking in at 100. Almost an hour has been cut for the 150-minute international version, which will be released by IFC in the U.S. and Canada.

Talented actor Toni Servillo, who impersonated former politician Giulio Andreotti in the director’s 2008 Il Divo, stars as the grotesquely charming S.B. and Elena Sofia Ricci archly portrays his end-of-her-tether wife.

It must be said that the new cut brings out both the best and worst of the film. On the one hand, it makes a much clearer connection between the two main narrative threads, the prostitution ring run by Sergio Morra (Riccardo Scamarcio) and Berlusconi’s separation from his wife of 26 years, Veronica Lario. On the negative side, it underlines the story’s overall shapelessness and lack of narrative momentum. It also seems to amplify the impact of the massive amount of female nudity, which is presented as emblematic of Italy’s self-abasement and its decline into unrestrained greed, political apathy and hedonism.

All this was poignantly detailed in the poetic The Great Beauty, but Sorrentino’s current film is a far angrier, more contemptuous vision. It’s the dark side of Fellini, one might say, the director’s usual source of inspiration. Here, in Sorrentino’s sweeping vision of hell, Italian society is permeated by trashy vulgarity and endemic corruption. The two come together in the dozens of young women — seasoned prostitutes and aspiring apprentices — who are led to believe that marketing their sexuality is the best way up the ladder to money and flashy careers. In these days of #MeToo and the close questioning of the exploitation of female sexuality through male abuse of power, Loro occupies a rather uncomfortable spot. Its pervasive use of female nudity leaves a nasty aftertaste (as it is meant to do) and the sight of young women degrading themselves to curry favor with the kingpin may well put off female audiences.

Of course, these days the idea of a lecherous tycoon turned politician has become a commonplace, and Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello’s screenplay about Berlusconi, the richest man in Italy and four times a prime minister, rings depressingly true. But after decades of tax fraud and corruption trials, sex scandals and revelations, Veronica’s scathing judgment that her husband is "pathetic" feels too little and too late.

We pick up the Berlusconi saga in the closing days of his marriage, after the fall of his third government, when he was already embroiled in various criminal trials. But first, the film takes a side-trip through the undrained swamp of the political hangers-on, hookers and handlers who orbit him, yearning to be of service to power.

Living down south on the fringes, their eyes fastened on greatness, Sergio (a magnetically vital Scamarcio) and his unscrupulous wife, Tamara (Euridice Axen), run a ring of young prostitutes. In a grotesquely funny scene on a boat, Sergio persuades a local politician to give him a contract through the simple move of bringing a hooker aboard who immediately removes her bikini and spreads her legs. He gets the contract. And he’s lightning-struck to discover she has Berlusconi’s leering face tattooed on her backside.

From that moment on, he schemes to meet S.B. While Tamara teases a foolish minister belonging to Berlusconi’s party (a funny-pathetic Fabrizio Bentivoglio in a bald hairpiece), Sergio bonds with one of the great man’s mistresses, the high-class temptress Kira (a tragic Kasia Smutniak). She approves of his gamble to rent a villa in Sardinia next to Berlusconi’s and stock it with stoned young bodies in and out of bikinis. “It’s the best investment you’ll ever make,” Kira assures him.

The action switches to Sardinia, where Silvio has just pacified his wife and is playing the good husband, though he’s clearly bored to death. His government has been shot down in the elections and he frets about how to return as P.M. When he complains about being sidelined to his old confidante and business partner, Berlusconi is reminded he’s the greatest salesman on Earth. All he needs to do is to persuade six senators to jump ship to his party to be on top again: “In love, you betray. In politics, you change your mind.” Buying the senators proves to be child’s play.

In a film made out of odd bits and pieces, there is one immortal scene that deserves to be anthologized: Silvio testing himself to see if he can still work the old magic that got him started in the real estate business, when he sold apartments in a dead market. He picks up the phone book and calls a gloomy housewife out of the blue, and against all odds, he sells her a dream apartment that hasn’t even been built.

Between crooning “Malafemmena” to his enchanted wife and exploiting the gold-diggers next door for his own pleasure, Servillo’s Silvio is spot-on and even, dare one say, perversely admirable. So much so that it seems a pity when things fall apart. Servillo may look a little waxy as the makeup-addicted Berlusconi, but he brilliantly mimes his voice, gestures and mannerisms, his innate charm and wily self-justification.

In the final scenes, Elena Sofia Ricci offers a meaty portrait of his outraged, book-reading wife. Another scandal hits the papers and she packs her bags for a trekking holiday in Cambodia. When she returns, it will be to ask for a divorce in a beautifully sustained scene of mutual recrimination. Veronica, who is the one dignified woman in the film, courageously holds her own and shows there are some people her husband can’t sell smoke to.

With her gone, the villa’s gates open to the unruly, undressed crowd next door. As they gyrate the night away, an innocent-looking 20-year-old (Alice Pagani) attracts Silvio’s attention. But she tells him frankly that she doesn’t want him to make her an actress or a congresswoman, and as for sex, his breath reminds her of her grandfather’s. After that put-down, he returns to the party and plunges into the bath of flesh that has been prepared for the emperor, a version of the famous “bunga-bunga” games that Berlusconi used to indulge in after dinner in his Milan residence.

There are still more things that Sorrentino has to say, but at this point the film feels basically over. The final images of the earthquake that destroyed the city of L’Aquila bring the fantasy world of the rich and debased back to stark Italian reality, and a somber scene of a work crew delicately removing a sorrowful statue of Christ from a ruined church, under the morose gaze of the homeless “them,” is perfectly calibrated as the closing image.

Top technical work includes Lele Marchitelli's score, which creates a happening atmosphere for Luca Bigazzi's elegant-grotesque cinematography and Stefania Cella's stunning Italian villas. Special mention goes to Carlo Poggioli for his riveting, barely there costumes for most of the female cast.

Production companies: Indigo Film, Pathe Film, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Toni Servillo, Elena Sofia Ricci, Riccardo Scamarcio, Kasia Smutniak, Euridice Axen, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Roberto De Francesco, Dario Cantarelli, Anna Bonaiuto, Alice Pagani, Mattia Sbragia
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Screenwriters: Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello
Producers: Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima, Carlotta Calori, Viola Prestieri
Director of photography: Luca Bigazzi
Production designer: Stefania Cella
Costume designer: Carlo Poggioli
Editor: Cristiano Travaglioli
Music: Lele Marchitelli
World sales: Pathe International
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Masters)
150 minutes