‘Them’ (‘Loro’): Film Review

Screengrab/Universal Pictures International Italy
An amusing, abrasive take on a facile target.

Toni Servillo is a grinning Silvio Berlusconi in director Paolo Sorrentino’s critique of Italian society.

After a long series of attention-grabbing films, director Paolo Sorrentino has risen to become one of Italy’s major social critics. Loro 1 (Them 1), the first of his twin films on Silvio Berlusconi, fits snugly into his dark vision of the country’s decline into unrestrained greed, political apathy and careless hedonism, which were so poignantly detailed in The Great Beauty. Judging by the first part, Loro seems less a biopic of the Italian business mogul turned politician than a harsh critique of Italians and their habits of self-abasement. Toni Servillo, the talented actor who impersonated wily politician Giulio Andreotti in Il Divo, makes a grotesquely charming S.B., and Elena Sofia Ricci archly portrays his end-of-her-tether wife, Veronica Lario. But surprisingly, it's the extras who hold center stage here.

Given Berlusconi’s colorful reputation and high recognition value, the Italy-France co-production has a built-in audience and has been presold to numerous territories. It is being released by Focus Features through Universal Pictures Int’l. in Italy, where the companion piece, Loro 2, will come out May 10.

The characters are infused with the same kind of grotesque scorn Sorrentino reserved for Giulio Andreotti and the long-gone Christian Democrats in his 2008 feature Il Divo. But while Il Divo won the jury prize in Cannes, Loro is Sorrentino’s first film since 2004 not to be invited to the Croisette, a fact that has given rise to all sorts of dark conjectures in Italy over whether the festival bowed to the former prime minister’s strong objections to seeing himself mocked onscreen and to his threatened lawsuits. It is equally possible, however, that the film’s strident tone and television feeling are behind its exclusion, not to mention the presentation of all the women as so much flesh for sale, especially in the year of #MeToo. The presence of hordes of young girls willing to stoop to anything to be near "Him" leaves a bitter aftertaste that is not pleasant.

The story unfolds with the same over-the-top quality of the director's more amusingly outrè TV series The Young Pope, getting laughs throughout. But the opening hour of collective prostitution feels a little slung together in bits and pieces, as the screenplay struggles to outdo sordid reality and falls short.

Though it’s all about him, Berlusconi only takes the stage belatedly in the last half hour of Loro 1. Sorrentino and co-screenwriter Umberto Contarello pick up the Berlusconi saga in the closing days of his marriage to Lario, after the fall of his third government, when he was already convicted of tax fraud and embroiled in several other criminal trials. But first they take a side-trip through the undrained swamp of the political hangers-on, hookers and handlers who orbit around him, yearning to be of service to power.

Living down South on the fringes, their eyes fastened to greatness, are Sergio (easygoing Riccardo Scamarcio) and his wife Tamara (a vindictive Euridice Axen), who run a ring of young prostitutes. Scamarcio, who is magnetically attractive as a pimp with ambitions, conceives an unbearable longing to serve Berlusconi after he casually gets it on with one of his girls and discovers she has S.B.’s leering face tattooed to her backside. From that moment on, he bribes everyone in sight for an introduction to the great man. It’s an uphill struggle, even after he sends Tamara to tease a foolish, poetry-spieling minister (a funny-pathetic Fabrizio Bentivoglio in a bald hairpiece). He next enrolls the high-class temptress Kira (Kasia Smutniak), who suggests he rent a villa in Sardinia next to Berlusconi’s and stock it with stoned young bodies in and out of bikinis, gyrating to deep bass beats. “It’s the best investment you’ll ever make,” she assures him. Every Italian will recognize all this as thinly veiled reality and people who were once headline news.

The final sequences of the pic take place in the paradise of the twin villas. Sergio’s is full of sex, drugs and willing bodies. Silvio’s is populated by a soccer star, a factotum and the sullen Veronica, who has gone beyond jealousy but objects to her dignity being trampled in public by his antics. His bizarre attempts to court her end the film on a leisurely, almost romantic note that is sure to be overturned in part 2.

Production companies: Indigo Film, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Toni Servillo, Elena Sofia Ricci, Riccardo Scamarcio, Kasia Smutniak, Euridice Axen, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Ricky Memphis, Roberto De Francesco, Dario Cantarelli, Anna Bonaiuto  
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Screenwriters: Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello
Producers: Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima, Viola Prestieri, Carlotta Calori
Director of photography: Luca Bigazzi
Production designer: Stefania Cella
Costume designers: Carlo Poggioli
Editor: Cristiano Travaglioli
Music: Lele Marchitelli
Casting director: Anna Maria Sambucco
World sales: Pathe Pictures International

104 minutes