Naked lust for pelf and power

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

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

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