@Filmhouse Edinburgh from Fri 19 April 2019

In many ways, it feels as if Loro should have been Paolo Sorrentino’s magnum opus. It bears many of the acclaimed Italian director’s signature features, such as a preoccupation with (specifically male) anxieties around ageing (Youth, The Great Beauty), the fetishisation of female youthfulness that Sorrentino sees as attendant to declining virility (The Family Friend), and a stylishly presented, acerbically witty insight into Italian politics  (Il Divo). Loro, a film about Italy’s controversial former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, therefore seems, on paper, like the ultimate Sorrentino project.

Yet, in reality, it largely fails to live up to his previous work. There are several elements of Loro that make the film unsatisfactorily ambiguous at best and downright uncomfortable viewing at worst. The most obvious feature in this regard is the film’s rampant objectification of women and the relentless bombardment of female nudity that dominates the first half. It goes without saying that it is inevitable that a film about bunga-bunga magnate Berlusconi is going to feature the exploitation of women as a central theme. What is disappointing about Loro is that the film is overly indulgent in this regard, ultimately enacting the unrestrained misogyny it ostensibly seeks to condemn. It’s possible that the intention has been to saturate the film with so many images of degradation that it has a deadening effect on the audience, in order to render us as jaded and unshockable as Berlusconi’s seedy and corrupt milieu. However, the final result feels merely gratuitous and permissive to the point of being celebratory. The depiction of the plight of some central female characters, particularly Berlusconi’s long-suffering wife Veronica Lario (Elena Sofia Ricci), provide a lamentably inadequate semblance of a counterpoint in this regard.

This element serves something bigger and arguably even more controversial at work within the film – namely, the surprisingly sympathetic nature of the portrayal of Berlusconi. Toni Servillo‘s protagonist is deeply charming and ultimately more of a hopeless romantic than self-serving cynic. He is improbably articulate and philosophical, a character formula that made significantly more sense when applied to Giulio Andreotti in Il Divo. His attempts to seduce nubile twenty-something women are presented as genuinely tragic – products of his sense of isolation and desperate fear of becoming irrelevant. One scene in the film that does succeed in appropriately conveying both Sorrentino’s genius and Servillo’s indisputable talent features the protagonist deciding on a whim one evening to phone a stranger, posing as a property salesperson, in order to prove to himself the continued potency of his powers of persuasion and charisma.

The surrealist sequences, coupled with a disclaimer at the start of the film, emphasise that Loro is not a biography or portrayal of real events, but rather that the character of Berlusconi is being used as a kind of artistic springboard for more abstract ideas. It’s therefore often quite difficult to pin down the precise meanings Sorrentino is trying to convey. There are, however, flashes of clarity and indeed brilliance peppered throughout Loro. In particular, the final sequence of the film, which depicts exhausted and dejected emergency services personnel who have been responding to the L’aquila earthquake of 2009, is powerful, and goes some way to harnessing the film to a political perspective that is critical of, if not Berlusconi as an individual, certainly the social forces and skewed values that allow exploiters and oppressors to flourish at the expense of ordinary citizens.