How a political film should aim to make you feel is a tricky question. There’s the Ken Loach approach, worthy and moving but, in this overcrowded landscape, arguably not fashioned to persuade (or even attract) those viewers not already on-side, and there’s the fast-paced Armando Iannucci satire, in which hypocrisies are gleefully punctured and the accepted political culture is stretched toward its Swiftian logical conclusions. The latter is often more fun to watch, but of course that’s partly because it tends to flatter its audience as it goes along, which has an obvious downside. It’s also a method that depends on the anxious, image-conscious bad faith of its real-life targets. What to do, though, when the target—too busy openly reveling in his own corruption to indulge in much old-school hypocrisy—is beyond, or immune to, satire?
Burlesque seems the only way to tackle billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s longest-serving postwar prime minister, whose various convictions for fraud and bribery—and even an ongoing trial for a cover-up related to his allegedly paying an underage girl for sex—haven’t prevented his making yet another comeback this year, if only as a member of the European Parliament. And it happens that burlesque is something of a specialism for Paolo Sorrentino, probably the best known and internationally most praised contemporary Italian director. In his new film, Loro (Them), you could say that his style—a frenetic expressionism of swooping camera angles and carnivalesque set pieces—has finally met its ideal match. If the film threatens to leave many audience members queasy, exhausted, distended in the manner of a force-fed goose ready for its fate, that might just be the body’s response to a place where twenty-first–century aesthetics and politics meet.
Though it’s especially alarming to watch at this current moment, Loro is a period piece, a mostly imagined look behind the scenes at Berlusconi’s milieu during the mid-aughts, after one of his falls from power, as he plotted and bribed his way to the next rise. Its title describes him and the gang of enablers, cronies, and hangers-on who were looting Italy around that time. The film’s first hour or so follows a hungry, younger man, Sergio Morra (Riccardo Scamarcio), who is desperate to catch the eye of the great showman: An early scene finds him, the picture of postmodern ambition and focus, fucking and snorting coke off a young woman with a Berlusconi tattoo on her lower back. (Sadly, though there are a few spirited performances, this is close enough to an encapsulation of the function served by women in the film. Their schemes and protests notwithstanding, they exist mostly as bait, trophies, transactional objects rather than full moral actors, and aren’t paid the compliment of curiosity that the principal men, however crude their motives, receive.)
We then follow Morra’s entrepreneurial efforts to gather a large stable of similarly endowed beauties in hopes of attracting attention with a drug-fueled party at the mansion next to Berlusconi’s summer place. Time slows and stretches around the complex machinations of the wannabe acolytes and around the long, loud shots of bodies undulating in rooms and by pools, so that, although the camera leaps and lingers on his lavish estate, we don’t get to Berlusconi himself until nearly halfway through the film. (In Italy, Loro was released in two parts.) That’s an intriguing move, creating a certain suspense and mystery around someone whose fondness for smoke and mirrors and tits all over has always seemed notably designed to impress and overwhelm, rather than to hide anything. Shamelessness is, after all, the brand.
It’s precisely this contradiction that seems to have attracted Sorrentino to his subject. The Berlusconi crew, he has observed, is “predictable but indecipherable,” crude yet elusive, which is why Loro feels an apt development from the film that won him an Oscar. 2013’s The Great Beauty was a study in the grim devotion to pleasure, the determination to keep a party going long after it should have been over—a gorgeous, steroidal Fellini update that put Rome and its socialite media class through the juicer. In Loro, the effort to plumb the void at the center of all the grotesqueries is given a sharper, more historically specific edge.
Like the earlier film, Loro relies heavily on the gifts of Toni Servillo, Sorrentino’s brilliant and protean muse, who stars as Berlusconi. He’s unrecognizable from, say, the hunched and desiccated monster-bureaucrat, complete with prosthetic ears, whom he played in Il Divo, Sorrentino’s 2008 study of an earlier corrupt Italian prime minister, Giulio Andreotti. Here, Servillo’s face is swelled and set, the crooner salesman fat off the land, still ready to seduce or bully, preferably both at once, and betraying a touch of wistful bewilderment at how things have been working out—a touch that’s no doubt just another contemptuously thin ruse to keep getting his own way.
Again and again, you see him exercise his powers on other people—wife, allies, political opponents—sometimes half surprised, amused that he’s pulling it off once more, sometimes a little needy. Alone in the huge villa at night he cold-calls a woman he doesn’t know and tries to sell her a house, bringing her to the edge of hanging up and then saving it, successfully manipulating her even as she senses what he’s doing, just to ensure he’s still got it. He treads in shit in front of a child and then talks him into believing that it didn’t happen. That’s what’s important, he tells the kid afterward. That you’ll believe what he told you over whatever you thought you saw.
This is a movie with a lot of false endings, but then, of course, so is Berlusconi’s career. In one deceptively climactic scene, his long-suffering wife, Veronica (Elena Sofia Ricci), confronts him, finally ready to leave for good, telling him how inexcusable, how repulsive he really is. It’s tempting to read her here as standing in not only for his whole vast crew of enablers but for Italy itself, used up and disillusioned after years of his carryings-on. That reading is hard to avoid, in part because of the way he swiftly turns her challenge around on her, asking why, if she always saw him this way, she nonetheless put up with him for so long. She doesn’t have a good answer, instead mumbling something like, “You made me fall in love.”
Yet again, he has the upper hand, because the real answer is that he’s a figure seductive enough to persuade her against her better judgment, and that, in the end, she was herself corrupt and acquisitive enough to let him do it. He knows this because that’s what he enjoys: More than the ephemeral pleasures of the notorious bunga-bunga festivities, it’s that feeling of other people compromising themselves for him, knowing just what he is and going along anyway. This is perhaps the closest thing to an identifiable human emotion Sorrentino grants him. “Do you know what happens when someone uses psychology on me?” he genially warns a guy who’s just made a pathetic, doomed gesture at standing up to him. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing happens.”
That up-close mystery, the endless, aggressive, triumphal flaunting of one’s own emptiness, seems to hold an enduring fascination for Sorrentino, and that’s the strength of the film, as well as its weakness, at least as a political work. Toward the end, a hint of the material consequences of the pervasive corruption we’ve been seeing begins to creep in, with some painterly glimpses of impoverished survivors of the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, but these are perfunctory enough that one suspects Sorrentino’s heart isn’t quite in it. Unlike a Loach or an Iannucci-style satirist, Sorrentino makes the viewer feel thoroughly compromised—you’re sickened and entertained by turns; you want to look away but don’t; you know that these are people who love nothing more than for the public to keep on watching.
This sense of uneasy complicity is in a way the most devastating form of political critique one could come up with—but it also creates a paralyzing feeling that there is no alternative, no outside. Its bleak cynicism feels total—a picture of a whole doomed culture symbolized by one symptomatic man, who prepared the ground for more extreme right-wing leaders to come. At the same time, there’s a floating pathos here that’s hard to locate, an inexorable pull toward the central figure, looking down with ironized melancholy at his own feet of clay. If this isn’t quite sympathy or admiration, it nonetheless implies a kind of tribute, an almost tender awe at the unapologetic whizbang excess, the comic flair, the eye for the grotesque detail, the scale and success of it all. Sorrentino is quite the showman himself; perhaps it’s not going too far to note that he and his subject share some talents. The film’s position, politically and morally, is clear, yet its visual logic and structure drift ever in the other direction—as if it’s enacting how we are seduced, impressed, by sheer audacity if nothing else.
As the wife’s last showdown scene establishes, it really doesn’t matter what made the Berlusconi figure who he is or how he got that way. There’s no secret explanation that would be worth knowing. The only thing that matters, the only thing that needs explaining about men like this, is how we never, ever seem to stop letting them get away with it.