The title is Italian for them, as in the movers, shakers, petty crooks and parasites who hover around power like moths to a flame. (Place an apostrophe in the right place, and you get l’oro: the gold.) But Loro, director Paolo Sorrentino’s gorgeously gaudy, chalice-runneth-over satire, is really about one person: Silvio Berlusconi. The first time you see the Prime Minister is by proxy, via a lower back tattoo of his face on a young woman. When the man, played by Italian cinema’s reigning chameleon Toni Servillo, eventually shows up 40 or so minutes into this nearly two-and-a-half-hour epic of decadence, he’s dressed like Salome, seven veils and all. Yet the politician’s presence hovers over every single scene whether he’s in it or not. Berlusconi is the black-hole sun everyone orbits around, the subject of all discussion, the behind-the-scenes Caligula conducting all that bunga-bunga debauchery. He is the public figure who sets the pace for the rampant corruption on display. Everybody else is just scrambling to sprint alongside him.
Before we officially meet the man of the hour circa 2006, however, we get to know Sergio Morra (Riccardo Scamarcio, a.k.a. the bad guy from John Wick: Chapter 2.) To call him a pimp suggests a certain sort of flamboyant panache or menace; he’s basically a functionary flesh-peddler hoping to break into the bribery big leagues. Morra is looking for an in with the media mogul-cum-political bigwig, and he finds it in Kira (Kasia Smutniak), one of Berlusconi’s occasional girlfriends. Everyone warns him to steer clear — “She’s meaner than Putin,” he’s told — but the ambitious player sees a kindred spirit. The two throw a massive party, complete with ecstasy tablets etched with Silvio’s face, musical numbers, va-va-voom montages and a woman covered in Post-Its, knowing that it will attract Silvio’s attention. It does, naturally. Soon, Morra finds himself inching closer into Il Capo‘s inner circle.
Sorrentino is primarily known on these shores as the auteur behind The Young Pope, and these early, steroidal scenes of hedonism will scratch the itch of anyone counting the hours until their weekly doses of Jude Law strutting by bikini-clad women in a white Speedo. The 49-year-old Italian director traffics in a style you might call Vulgar Surrealism, in which highbrow formalism meets an almost hallucinogenic lowbrow spectacle; like Berlusconi’s own T&A-heavy TV programming, there are a lot of naked ladies and neuron-popping sensationalism on display. (Also: Sex! Coke-snorting! The Stooges’ “Down on the Street” soundtracking sinfulness, twice!)
Some of it is symbolic and weird, like a sheep dropping dead after watching a soul-sucking quiz show; some of it is Pure Titillation 101, with gyrating hips and writhing bodies staged for maximum grandiloquence. There are a handful of images here, from a showgirl emerging from color-bar curtains to a garbage truck executing a slo-mo swan dive off a bridge, that feel plucked out of a dream. The director’s longtime cinematographer Luca Bigazzi deserves the Golden Bunga award for these set pieces alone.
Like Fellini, Sorrentino is a moral filmmaker who loves using excess for effect (his 2013 Oscar-winner The Great Beauty is essentially his attempt at the 21st-century’s La Dolce Vita, a Sixties landmark that he also references here via a floating Jesus statue). Still, once the film shifts its focus to Berlusconi, Loro becomes a calmer, if not gentler portrait of the art of political seduction. There are still occasional day trips into over-the-top territory — a group of women working out in a gym suddenly turns into a propagandistic music video — yet the phantasmagoria takes a backseat to scenes of good old-fashioned power brokering. The opening disclaimer goes out of its way to point out that “the sequences depicting [characters’] private lives remain entirely fictional” and are the work of “the imagination of its authors.” No one’s claiming it’s a biopic. What Sorrentino and cowriter Umberto Contarello imagine, however, is that Berlusconi is someone who’s comfortable sitting on his chic designer throne and still views everything as a transaction and a test. Can I persuade you? Can I sweet-talk, serenade, scam or scare you into submission?
There’s something about the exchanges — and especially the way that Servillo nails the mix of flattery, charm offensives, showmanship and jovial menace — that rings authentic even if you’ve only seen the controversial leader from brief CNN clips. And the actor takes advantage of the opportunity to play the scales with this complicated figure, winding his way through various modes: elder statesman, hurt little boy, sexed-up strongman, weary superstar. At one point, bored and restless, Berlusconi phones a random citizen and pretends to be a real-estate salesman. He wants to sell her an apartment. She’s not interested. Servillo makes him relish the challenge, and seems to gain energy from every backstep or hesitation, giving you an apex predator always looking for an opening. It’s a hell of a performance. You suddenly understand how this guy cajoled and conned a country — and maintained his reign for so long.
Loro was originally designed and released as two separate films; for its run outside of Italy, Sorrentino edited both chapters into one 151-minute feature. The result occasionally feels like it’s both too much and not enough, and what may have been parallel stories of men gaining the world but losing their souls feels extremely off-kilter. You can feel when it’s getting too high off its own razzle-dazzle supply as well. But it’s hard not to be taken in by this look at a notoriously slippery head of state. You’re presented with a man who overcompensates for his insecurities, who abuses his position for personal gain, who feels entitled to indulge his appetites, who is somehow beloved and embarrassing to his constituency, who views corruption as a part of the gig and who feels unfairly bullied even as he lashes out. It is a template that is recognizable.