Listening to Italy
FICTION or REALITY?
A recently released Italian film is this month’s subject as the results of the Italian European Elections will not become clear until after the copy date for Labour Affairs.
Paolo Sorrentino’s film “Loro” was released in the UK in April . It deals with the period between 2006, after Berlusconi’s government had fallen, and 2010. “Loro“, literally “them”, refers to the people around him at that time, his wife, the women, the people he took advantage of, those wanting to take advantage of him and the ordinary Italian people.
Sorrentino is a well-known Italian writer and director. He is known particularly for making La grande bellezza, The Great Beauty, and Il Divo, the latter about the long-serving Italian Politician Giulio Andreotti. He was a controversial man because of alleged mafia connections, but he was also quite a wit. Relevantly his comment, “Power tires only those who do not have it,” could describe Berlusconi, whose search for a political come-back is partly the subject of the film. And Sorrentino could have used it as a title to his film.
“Loro” was originally released in two parts, and ideally was to be viewed consecutively. It was later re-released as Loro in a single shorter version with English subtitles. Loro 1 was not received well in Italy and was described by one critic as misshapen. Loro 2 completed and rounded the story and was reviewed with more understanding and enthusiasm, although it failed to make a Box Office profit. Reviews in the UK were mixed.
Only the main characters were given their real names. The more significant differently-named characters would probably be identifiable to Italians who would know something about contemporary politics and scandals. Most foreigners would lack the knowledge to give the story its full significance and fun. Also some unidentified characters flit incomprehensibly and confusingly through some of the short scenes and suggest that the film could and should have been edited further.
Sorrentino uses the magnificent Tony Servillo as Berlusconi. In one significant scene he is seen plotting with a real-life long-time collaborator and fellow consummate salesman Ennio Doris. In the film the two devise a (successful) plan to bribe, gently and almost imperceptibly, the six senators necessary to tip the political balance in favour of Silvio. Then they decide to return money to some of their creditors; it is of course to their advantage to do this. “Well” says Ennio “altruism is only another kind of self-interest.” The English subtitles translate this “egoismo” or self-interest as selfishness, which gives a different meaning altogether. Amazingly Ennio’s part is also played by Servillo. He is unrecognisable from his Berlusconi character, showing his remarkable ability to transform himself into a part.
The aim of the film for Sorrentino started, it seems oddly, as a “story of love”. Although it was always intended to have “feelings and sentiment” at its heart. He and his screen-writer Umberto Contarello found that it later went off in other directions. This concurs with his constant film making theme of using his work to explain human behaviour. He said later that “Loro” would be his last film about a famous person. “You start in a disadvantaged position because people don’t want to know what you think, they want to recognise what they think”.
The love and relationship between Berlusconi and his wife Veronica Lario was one of the film’s main themes. Here the difference between fact and fiction illustrate the problems behind writing screenplays about contemporary people with very personal stories. In real life Lario and Berlusconi had three children. He humiliated her with his philandering which included sex with minors and prostitutes. On one public occasion he was almost embarrassingly flattering, to the point of drooling, about a woman. This was “former showgirl” as she is termed, Mara Carfagna who went on to be a Deputy (MP) and Minister under Berlusconi. The pun is intended.
The film has a highly entertaining and clever script and excellent directing. For example, a short scene was shot from above focussing on Berlusconi’s obviously false shiny black hair. One hears him tell Lario that he needed to go to Rome for a couple of days to have his hair done. Her look spoke volumes. You could see her think: “Another likely story Silvio”,
Italian Rolling Stone said that Elena Sofia Ricci was “extraordinary” in the role of Lario. Towards the end of the film she tells him that she is going to divorce him. They briefly discuss money and she asks him how he actually made his initial fortune. “I have a right to remain silent”. “You never reveal yourself, do you?” she replies. And this is one of Sorrentino’s pointers within the film to understanding Berlusconi’s personality. He never does reveal his true self to anyone. Lario, or Ricci goes on to say, “You are one long performance”.
Throughout the film the Berlusconi character asks others to tell him how he appears to them. Sorrentino has constructed a character with considerable power who is given respect and who provokes fear. But in reality he is personally insecure. He comprehends that Lario/Ricci wants a divorce yet can’t understand why she wants to leave him. He needs to see himself as a reflection and asks her why she loved him, what did she see in him that made her love him? He needs reassurance and, as another character says, “you want everyone to be crazy about you!”.
In another brilliant piece of scripting Berlusconi goes to seduce a girl who is sitting, dressed, on a bed. His overtures are tender and gentle and she resists with dignity. He becomes slightly more insistent and she points out that the situation is ridiculous. She is 20 and he is 70. Also she says, “your breath is neither good nor bad, but it reminds me of my grandfather”. Later Berlusconi soliloquises that he and the grandfather probably use the same product to clean their dentures.
The film’s first long sequence tells the factually true story of one of the “them”, who is trying to use Berlusconi to advance himself. This was real-life pimp and convicted criminal Gianpaolo Tarantini. Called Sergio in the film, he rents a property opposite Berlusconi’s Sardinian mansion. He lays on orgies, drugs and music which are supposed to lure his fun-loving neighbour and the implication is that they did. Berlusconi later rebuffs an attempt by Sergio to capitalise on his contact by asking to be nominated for a Euro Parliamentary seat. However ludicrous this might seem there are several precedents for nominations to be gifted in this way – see above to Mara Carfagna.
But Sorrentino’s orgies, where cocaine is snorted off naked buttocks, ludicrously never remove as much as one G-string. Bikinis may be tiny but they stay on and men cavort in drugged ecstasy with dozens of gyrating women while wearing large striped boxer shorts. So the scenes fail ridiculously as orgies. They didn’t work as semi-orgies and should have been more symbolic, not semi-realistic. As it was they sat uncomfortably alongside other obviously serious parts of the cinematography. Rolling Stone was very critical of this, the major part of Loro 1, “a porn film without a moral sense”.
It was particularly inharmonious with the closing scenes where Berlusconi, as Italy’s Prime Minister was dealing seriously with the L’Aquila earthquake. Sorrentino shows him performing with gravity and great concern. Sorrentino understands that Berlusconi needs to be seen, as La Repubblica says, as “a man of action”. He will operate with showy sincerity, but this is a display appropriate to that moment only. It confirms the words that Sorrentino put into Veronica Lario’s mouth once again: “You are one long performance”.
The film’s parades of sexual peccadilloes show how a Berlusconi, or indeed a Trump figure, lack the comforting gravitas to be seen as credible. There is a short scene where a severe older man counsels Berlusconi to restrict his hugs and jokes when on high-level trips abroad. And Berlusconi is shown to not really understand this. Then on another occasion he expresses frustration at his inability to work as Premier in the way that he wants. “Why don’t they let me govern the country the way I ran my companies? Why do the leftist judges torment me? Why do people snoop on my private life?”
The film doesn’t always succeed. Sorrentino’s films work on different levels and need to be appreciated for this. The acting however and the script are superb and almost amount to making it into an excellent film.