Right around Easter of 2017, former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi was ostentatiously photographed outside one of his private Lombardy properties cuddling lambs. Small. White. Fluffy. Innocent sheep-babies. It was time we “pardoned” them and abolished the age-old tradition of eating roast lamb on Easter Sunday, he said.
The irony of his gesture was not lost on any Italian that day. Berlusconi, the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Berlusconi, whose entire political apparatus was built on a two-faced model of government. Bringing the lamb to the slaughter.
The irony was apparently not lost on Paolo Sorrentino, either. His epic, 2018 two-part biopic on Berlusconi (lui) and his fandom/ foedom (loro), opens with the very same image. A lamb running across the perfectly trimmed green lawn of one of Berlusconi’s estates into a lavish villa where, death by air conditioning, she will gradually but promptly freeze, images of cured meats and sausages flashing before her on a muted television.
It was the perfect beginning to a project that failed to validate the hype it generated. No shade intended. How was Sorrentino to follow up on the massive international critical and commercial success of La grande bellezza? Short answer: not with Loro. It was a tall order, and though a valiant effort, not entirely filled.
Loro does some things very well — the things on which Sorrentino has built his reputation. Stunning cinematography; a dazzling play of light and darkness, clarity and shadow; near still-frames that attribute full weight (and beauty) to the decadence they portray. There is the customary monologue scene where the film’s protagonist as much as its script and choreography mows down the audience. There is the expected virtuosismo of Tony Servillo in the starring role — by now taken for granted and undervalued when obvious. There are long scenes of witty, or at least, well-written dialogue expertly delivered.
But Loro’s many qualities are simply not numerous or important enough to compensate for its gaping lacunae. Some might be owed to the fact that our viewers and I watched the abridged version, which, critics say, cuts the fat. But I was disappointed when a promising storyline, involving Riccardo Scamarcio’s character, an aspiring diplomat from Puglia, and his aspiration to enter into Berlusconi’s good graces and thereby achieve his political career goals, falls completely flat into an easily-predicted downward spiral of disillusionment. Loro chooses to animate a familiar story: the creation of the “bunga bunga” that brought with it Berlusconi’s international notoriety. And the heavy rotation of waif-like, star-struck models and would-be actresses (olgettine) on display is mesmerizing. But viewers are never invited to consider their story from their – loro – point of view or to take into consideration the struggles, both moral and material, that must accompany an attempt to gain fame based on one’s own talents in a non-meritocratic society. They are alluded to vaguely, but never fully addressed. In short, what purports to be a film about the people in Berlusconi’s immediate entourage results in a superficial display of Italy’s continuing obsession with a self-interested, if seemingly well-intentioned, patriarch.
This, in fact, is the movie’s central achievement — and one worth watching. Against a background of MDMA-induced displays of sexual libertarianism, Loro develops convincingly the relationship between Berlusconi and his wife, Veronica. It chronicles both their moments of happiness and their marital struggles, their tenderness and their reciprocal remorselessness. And as one viewer suggested, it prompts a comparison between this relationship and the one so long maintained between Berlusconi and Italy’s people. When, on the brink of divorce, the former premier asks his wife why she stood by him for so many years if, as she claims, she never had any respect for him or his political agenda, the question resonates strongly. For decades, Berlusconi was elected as Italy’s head-of-state (second only to the mostly ineffectual appointed Presidente della repubblica). The people lent their consent and, in many cases, enthusiasm to his office. But when things began to turn for him, none made any secret of their discontent, of their years-long disillusionment with Berlusconi. Why only then? Why not revoke their support sooner?
This is a question, I suspect, that viewers have been asking themselves since at least 2009, when Berlusconi’s government takes a turn for the worse. But the film’s ending leaves the fate of the country up to interpretation and only hints at the next cycle of political machinations engineered on Berlusconi’s undeniable salesmanship in the face of crisis. In fact, Loro leaves off precisely when Italy’s political landscape begins to change. It conveniently avoids the falling out to follow in 2013, when Berlusconi is finally put on trial, the result of his court-mandated house arrest, or his various attempts at government reprisal since then. Of course, no movie can be expected to cover thirty years’ worth of public and private scandal in a three-hour timespan. And perhaps this is Loro’s greatest weakness: its realization fails to meet its filmmaker’s ambition.