During his four terms in office, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi redefined the norms of Italian society and created a global blueprint for political strongmen. A business tycoon who owned multiple TV channels, Berlusconi governed Italy like one of his media businesses, eventually facing multiple investigations, sex scandals and charges of corruption.
Filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 2014 for The Great Beauty, a fever dream about the majesty of Rome and the regrets of old age. The film's global success ensured Sorrentino's stature as one of Europe's leading filmmakers, and he went on to direct the English-language film Youth and the HBO series The Young Pope.
Now Sorrentino returns to Rome for his latest film, Loro. It is a lavish biopic of Berlusconi that is both unauthorized and unforgiving.
In Sorrentino's version of the story, the fictionalized Berlusconi doesn't appear on screen for almost an hour as the film introduces the sycophants, loyalists and gatekeepers who helped build his cult. Loro is Italian for "them"; the film is as much about those who made Berlusconi possible as it is about the man himself.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian of fascism and Italy at New York University, says that Silvio Berlusconi showed how the collision of entertainment culture and political power can fray democratic norms.
"One of the things he did was to create continual moments of outrage to capture the news cycle," Ben-Ghiat says. "He was extremely expert in knowing what was going to spike ratings so he changed what politics in the news was made of." She says Berlusconi's rule "proved very challenging for Italian democracy because Berlusconi showed that you could completely monopolize political discourse, and the Italian center-left didn't know how to respond to him on that terrain, or to respond to his huge corruption and his refusal to divest his conflicts of interests."
Filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino says the left also failed to understand how to respond to his image-making and big-screen persona. By satirizing and mocking his excesses as pathetic and ridiculous, his critics only further strengthened his position, the filmmaker says.
"These attacks were counterproductive, because people often sympathize with individuals who are attacked and portrayed as pathetic," Sorrentino says. "So what we did is portray lesser-known emotional dimensions."
Sorrentino's film doesn't treat Berlusconi as a caricature, but as a savvy and undeniably gifted salesman. He can be vindictive, narcissistic and vicious, but he's also at times an almost sympathetic character, struggling with his fading place in the political landscape, aging and his crumbling marriage.
Berlusconi — with his larger-than-life persona, caravans of models, scandals and excesses — is a natural subject for the big screen, the filmmaker says. He recreates the politician's legendary "bunga bunga" parties as hedonistic, drug-fueled and misogynistic exercises in consumption.
As historian Ben-Ghiat points out, "Sorrentino does a wonderful job of showing how Berlusconi's television networks and his general ethos turned women into consumer objects. So the viewer of Sorrentino's film should watch for the sheer numbers of perfect bodies to the extent where you hardly notice them anymore as individuals — and that's intentional."
But Sorrentino intersperses those garish public displays of power with imagined conversations and contemplative private moments.
"Sorrentino has always been very skillful at creating moods," Ben-Ghiat says. "Moods that can be excess when he has party scenes, but also a kind of nostalgic, elegiac stillness. And he often uses Rome, as he did in The Great Beauty to the extent where many felt the true protagonist of that film was Rome. And there is this tension between the stillness and solidness of Rome and the garish, spectacle-driven, always more bodies, always more women of Berlusconi's life."
The film's lead actor Toni Servillo, who also starred in The Great Beauty, says that while Loro may be about the darkness in his country, it's a cautionary tale about a kind of politics that has now spread beyond Italy.
"I think we're living in dark times because it's a dark age when a country relies on a strongman who holds within himself the reins of destiny," Servillo says. "We see that in Europe in the advancement and the growth of the right-wing and I find that highly, highly, highly, troublesome."
Tom Cole edited the broadcast version of this story.
You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.