Prime target: can Paolo Sorrentino's biopic land a blow on Berlusconi?

One night in 2001, flicking through the TV channels during a year of study in Italy, I chanced on an advert in which a woman in a swimming costume came into a room with a pool. She dived in and began to swim from one end to the other. It was unclear what the advert would be for – swimming costumes? pools? – so my flatmates and I quickly made bets. Finally, the nubile woman reached the end of the pool and swam up to … a plate of raw mushrooms, picking one of them up and nuzzling it. A caption and jingle closed off the enterprise, directing viewers to buy mushrooms.

This was the year of the second electoral victory of Silvio Berlusconi, owner of Italy’s largest TV company, including three of the country’s seven TV channels. You can’t talk about Berlusconi without talking about television, and you can’t talk about Italian television without mentioning Berlusconi. His wealth and profile stem in great part from his association with cheap television – quiz shows, reality TV – that constantly objectifies women. Paolo Sorrentino’s new film, Loro, which focuses on Berlusconi around the time of the “bunga-bunga” parties and the earthquake in L’Aquila, certainly embraces this aspect. In a blistering dressing-down given to Silvio by his wife (who may safely be taken as Sorrentino’s mouthpiece), she tells him: “You sold out Italian culture, people’s hopes and the dignity of women.” Later, she says: “You flooded the schedules with adverts, promotional messages, soap operas, smutty variety shows, B-movies and idiotic quiz shows.”

Loro addresses that point by embracing the vulgarity of Berlusconi’s worldview: scene after scene depicts women in various states of undress, gyrating to tacky Europop. Whether the constant procession of “bimbos” – the film uses the word with insufficient irony – actually skewers Berlusconi is up for debate. Certainly there are scenes, in which young, beautiful women discuss their fascination with the leader of Forza Italia, that seem to do the opposite.

Tycoon buffoon … Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live.

Tycoon buffoon … Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live. Photograph: SNL/NBC

This isn’t new in Sorrentino’s cinema. The Great Beauty mourned a bygone era of Italian culture while using young women as props to satirise its vacuous contemporary party scene. Youth features a scene in which a beauty queen is revealed to be – plot twist! – clever.

Loro is at its most interesting when Sorrentino is compromised by his own visual vulgarity and his lenience towards his subject: the film exemplifiesthe stranglehold Berlusconi exerts over Italy. This inability to take him to task comes through in scenes where characters rebuking Berlusconi merely slam him for his childishness (this aspect is echoed in Toni Servillo’s uncanny performance, in which Berlusconi feels like a cross between Pinocchio and a clown).

In reality, Berlusconi is a vicious operator, and the film fails to castigate him as such.

In this sense it is reminiscent of depictions of Donald Trump in US media. Both men have been accused of ties to organised crime – in Trump’s case, in Russia – and both burnished their public profiles through television. But Trump is depicted on Saturday Night Live as a simpleton and Berlusconi in Loro is described as a “child who is afraid to die”. Only when his wife mentions Berlusconi’s connections to the convicted criminal Bettino Craxi does the film give the full measure of Berlusconi’s ruthlessness.

Sorrentino is not the first Italian director to take on Berlusconi. In 2012, Matteo Garrone’s Reality took oblique aim at him by ridiculing reality TV and its hold on the nation. The TV show at that film’s heart is a take-off of Grande Fratello, the Italian version of Big Brother, which airs on the Berlusconi-owned Canale 5. What begins as a gentle fable about the perils of celebrity-worship ends as something far more bleak, in which all connections to reality seem to have been severed. The final sequence, in the Big Brother house, is altogether eerie and disquieting.

Italy’s most politically engaged director, Nanni Moretti, has been targeting Berlusconi for 25 years – beginning obliquely, as with Garrone, by landing punches on Italian culture in general, namely with Caro Diario (1993). In one delectable sequence, Moretti goes to Stromboli to visit Gerardo, a formerly intellectual friend who has stopped reading Joyce and is now addicted to The Bold and the Beautiful. As the two of them climb the volcano, they cross paths with American tourists and Gerardo, realising later that the Americans are several episodes ahead of him, makes Moretti shout down the mountainside to ask whether a character found out about her ex-husband’s affair. The scene, in setting its monumental silliness against the severe beauty of Stromboli (a place, not coincidentally, with a rich history in Italian cinema), savages the country that Berlusconi was creating. (The Bold and the Beautiful aired on Berlusconi’s Canale 5 from 1994.)

… Nanni Moretti’s Habemus Papam.

Bearing the burden … Nanni Moretti’s Habemus Papam.

In Aprile (1998), Moretti took another shot, this time bringing in Berlusconi overtly in a scene in which Moretti (playing himself) is watching the prime minister in a TV debate with Massimo d’Alema. This gives rise to a line that has become much repeated in Italy, when a frustrated Moretti screams at his television: “Come on, d’Alema! Say something leftwing!” Moretti here cleverly turns the tables on Italy’s supine left. Sorrentino does this too, in Loro, when Berlusconi declares: “The left never manages to eviscerate me.”

Moretti reflects on his own inability to land a final blow in The Caiman, a 2006 film about a director struggling to make a film about Berlusconi. It ends with a chilling scene in which Moretti himself plays Berlusconi, and gets close to pinning down the man’s savagery. His next film, Habemus Papam, about a new Pope afraid to take on the immensity of his job, is often taken as a religious satire; it can perhaps be better read as a film about the weight of responsibility Moretti must have felt as a high-profile detractor of Berlusconi.

Loro saves the best stuff for its final reels, which depict the terrible losses of the people of L’Aquila, deserted by Berlusconi after an earthquake left their homes in ruins. Previously shown playing with a toy volcano, Berlusconi is tarred all the more in these last, silent scenes by his conspicuous absence. Sorrentino gets it right here, as Moretti did in his most salient attacks, by finally not making Berlusconi the ostensible subject.


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