Paolo Sorrentino’s visceral, grotesque and vulgar portrait of a former Italian prime minister, Loro (Them), is almost a great film. Almost.
It is the story of Silvio Berlusconi—infamous media mogul and right wing politician.
Sorrentino follows in many ways from the Italian director Fellini. Fellini’s lifelong mission was to critique excess by force-feeding it to his audience until they got sick.
Loro attacks affluence by wallowing in it.
We pick up the Berlusconi saga in the closing days of his second marriage, after the fall of his third government, when he was embroiled in various criminal trials.
But first the film takes a trip through the political hangers-on, women who work as prostitutes and the handlers who orbit him, yearning to be of service to power.
He fills the frame with sex, drugs, and europop. The camera glides through orgies, making the viewer a voyeur.
Toni Servillo brilliantly portrays Berlusconi with a slick of dyed-black hair, cheesy smile and jowly menace. He distracts from his own misdeeds with a constant stream of jokes, made-up quotations, and expanding lies.
The poisonous charm and wily self-justification mean malevolence is rendered as being part of his act.
He keeps a collection of favoured women identifiable by the butterfly pendant necklaces he gifts them like dog tags.
It is a sweeping vision of hell—trashy vulgarity and endemic corruption. The film is sprawling and idiosyncratic.
The symbolism isn’t subtle—a sheep dies in Berlusconi’s house transfixed by the air conditioning, a rubbish truck crashes and explodes, spewing out garbage. The pervasive use of female nudity leaves a nasty aftertaste—as it is meant to do—but it is still problematic.
Berlusconi regales women with his jokes. They laugh as they should. Eventually dinner drifts to dancing. Silvio watches. When he doesn’t the boredom and pain is clear in their eyes.
The women are led to believe that marketing their sexuality is the best way up the ladder to money and careers.
The pervasive use of female nudity leaves a nasty aftertaste—as it is meant to do—but it is still problematic
They are presented as emblematic of Italy’s self-abasement and its decline into unrestrained greed, apathy and hedonism.
But that means that they lack agency in the film, or in many cases even discernible characters.
There are powerful women characters. Elena Sofia Ricci plays his outraged wife. She shows there are some people her husband can’t sell smoke to.
Another young woman tells Berlusconi frankly that she doesn’t want sex, nor for him to make her an actress or a congresswoman, and that his breath reminds her of her grandfather’s.
Sorrentino said, “This film is about a triumph of vulgarity. I don’t think it should be my job to say, ‘Look how ugly vulgarity is, and how ugly these vulgar people are.’
“This ambiguity can be unpleasant and uncomfortable, and doing it this way gets fewer positive responses from viewers, but it’s necessary to show the beauty of vulgarity. It is beautiful.
“Why else would it be so popular? I am more interested in interrogating what is so attractive about a life we can also find repulsive.”
As Berlusconi persuades six senators to jump ship to his party so he can get back into government he says, “In love, you betray. In politics, you change your mind.”
A socialist recounts a history of Berlusconi’s crimes then takes the bribe.
It is an uncomfortable film. Evil is banal. You want to stop watching Berlusconi. But having created him, he won’t simply go away.
It is a critique of us, the complicit viewers. Sorrentino thinks Berlusconi is the monster we deserve.