Naked lust for pelf and power
Loro, an Italian word meaning “they”, is a movie about a mega-wealthy businessman and serial womaniser who becomes the leader of his country. No, it’s not about Donald Trump but rather it’s a wildly irreverent portrait of perhaps Europe’s most contentious politician of recent years, Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s richest man and four times the country’s prime minister. Director Paolo Sorrentino, whose impressive body of work includes The Great Beauty (2013), is clearly no fan of SB and it’s no understatement to describe his new film as a full-frontal attack on the politician and the depths to which he has reduced the Italian nation.
Ten years ago Sorrentino’s Il Divo was a portrait of another Italian prime minister, Giulio Andreotti, and the actor who so convincingly played him, Toni Servillo, also in The Great Beauty, is a remarkably convincing Berlusconi, his impersonation helped considerably by the make-up department, just as make-up helps make Christian Bale an awesomely convincing Dick Cheney in Vice.
Comparisons between that film and this one will inevitably be made, but where Vice is a work of commanding satire, Sorrentino’s movie is far less subtle. Like Fellini, whom he clearly admires, Sorrentino is prone to excess.
The version of Loro screening in Australia is the international one. In Italy it screened in two parts with a total running time of about 3½ hours; this version is about an hour shorter, and I had the impression — without having seen the original — that material deemed too specifically Italian was deleted. This has the probably unintended effect of tipping the balance away from intimate dramatic scenes in favour of a series of lavishly staged orgies. There has rarely been a film in which so much naked female flesh has been on display as Sorrentino visualises the notorious poolside parties and “bunga-bunga” games for which Berlusconi became infamous.
The first section of the film focuses not on Berlusconi but on Sergio Morra (Riccardo Scamarcio), a corrupt small-time operator — in reality, a pimp — who, together with his equally corrupt wife Tamara (Euridice Axen), runs a number of high-class prostitutes. It’s while having sex with one of these, the agile Candida (Carolina Binda), that Morra becomes turned on by a tattoo of Berlusconi on her buttocks and, according to the screenplay by the director and Umberto Contarello, conceives the idea of acquiring the Sardinian villa adjacent to SB. This is achieved through the help of one of Berlusconi’s mistresses, Kira (Kasia Smutniak) — “It’s the best investment you’ll ever make,” she tells him.
This is all taking place during a period in which Berlusconi is temporarily out of power after his third stint as prime minister — but he’s pretty certain to make a comeback thanks, the film suggests, to a combination of corruption, the fact he owns most of the country’s TV networks and, perhaps above all, national apathy.
Servillo’s Berlusconi appears on screen only after about 45 minutes of these preambles and is instantly established as a profoundly vain and empty character. “Why can’t I run the country like I run my businesses?” he moans at one point, and the wonder of it is that his insatiable thirst for young and available women didn’t seem to hinder his popularity with the voters. In a country noted for its love of the arts, this is a man who actually believes that the dreadful quiz shows that are featured on his TV stations qualify as culture.
Amid all the cocaine-snorting and naked frolicking, some poignant moments stand out. One involves Stella (Alice Pagani), a young would-be actress who has come to one of these parties in the hope of meeting a person of influence and who tells the leering Berlusconi, after he comes into her bedroom, that his breath smells like that of her grandfather. The film’s most touching scene comes near the end, and involves the politician and his long-suffering wife Veronica (Elena Sofia Ricci).
Loro is a caustic and bitter film and, even in this international version, is not always accessible for non-Italians who haven’t lived through the Berlusconi years. Fortunately Sorrentino is an exceptional director and Servillo is a most remarkable actor; once again these two major talents have created a film of considerable impact, even if this time their subject remains frustratingly elusive. From contemporary European politics to the politics of the 16th century with Mary Queen of Scots, the latest screen version of the life of the ill-fated monarch. Since the very beginning of cinema, Mary has fascinated audiences. In 1895, the first year that moving images were projected on a screen, the film The Execution of Mary Stuart, which lasted just a few minutes, starred Mrs Robert Thomas as Mary and amazed audiences with its pioneering visual effect — the use of stop-motion substitution — Loro when the axe falls on Mary’s neck. Subsequently the Scottish queen has been portrayed by a stellar line-up of actresses, among them Fay Compton, Katharine Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave — and now the talented Irish actress Saoirse Ronan tackles the role, with Australia’s Margot Robbie portraying her nemesis, Queen Elizabeth I.
Mary Queen of Scots marks the film debut of British stage director Josie Rourke, the first woman to be appointed artistic director of a major London theatre, the Donmar Warehouse. It’s a lavish production but an uneven one. On the one hand the presence of Ronan and Robbie, two exceptionally fine actresses, anchors the drama, and the use of authentic Scottish locations adds to the sense of reality. Yet this reality is undercut by some controversial choices, such as the casting of a black actor, Adrian Lester, in the key role of Lord Thomas Randolph, the English ambassador to the Scottish court. Lester gives a fine performance but some may find the casting a distraction, given the fact that research indicates there were no Africans in the English court at the time.
The film explores, more specifically than previous versions did, the sexuality of Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), and his presumed relationship with the queen’s hapless favourite, David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova); it also clarifies the religious conflicts that divided the Scottish court: Mary, raised in France, was Catholic, whereas her influential half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle) was Protestant.
Beau Willimon’s screenplay is based on Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by British historian John Guy, so you would expect the film to work on a realistic level. In a sense it does, with its scenes of plotting and politics that involve many interesting marginal characters, among them Guy Pearce as Elizabeth’s calculating adviser William Cecil. Yet we have a sequence in which Mary and Elizabeth meet in person, something the records show never happened. It’s a very strong sequence, but it undercuts any attempt the film may be making to tell the true story of the tragic Scottish queen.
Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart in Mary Queen of Scots; below, Toni Servillo as Silvio Berlusconi in