What's billed as the new Paolo Sorrentino film, Loro, is actually two films in one - or, rather, a selected highlights package of same. Sorrentino's first project after floating The Young Pope onto our satellite channels was conceived as a diptych of features, each one around 100 minutes in length, on the rise to power of Silvio Berlusconi; after their domestic release, these were edited into one two-and-a-half-hour movie for easier international consumption. The results display an unevenness and eccentricity that are as much to do with form as content. Sorrentino retains both the interest in Italian power structures he demonstrated with The Family Friend, the Andreotti biopic Il Divo and the coda of The Great Beauty, and that most un-A.J.P. Taylor-like fondness for recreating the above in the kind of brightly lit, fast-cut, ADHD-inducing images more commonly associated with pop promos and ad campaigns. Not for Sorrentino the austerity of a Roberto Rossellini when it comes to excavating the past; instead, he dives into altogether enthusiastically into the corruption and toxicity of the Berlusconi years. The extensive legal disclaimer placed very carefully before the main feature is the last time for 150 minutes you could Loro of being circumspect.
Its line of approach is perhaps its most measured aspect. Berlusconi himself will eventually assume centre stage, played by chameleonic Sorrentino fave Toni Servillo as a free-roaming Cheshire Cat grin supplemented by liberal applications of hair oil, yet for much of the first hour, we find ourselves in the dubious company of Sergio (Riccardo Scamarchio), a small-time pimp with aspirations of becoming a political player who embodies the flaws of the system that held Berlusconi up. Silvio has the power, pulling Italy's strings from the lakeside villa that served as his Mar-a-Lago, but the upwardly mobile Sergio grants the film access: to the well-to-do chatterers hymning the country's newfound "economic energy", and to those sex workers offered up to politicos as a way of securing crucial votes. It's a smart, clear-eyed authorial move, underlining how it took more than one man to throw a bunga-bunga party, and that Don Silvio was but the tip of an especially grimy and compromised iceberg. On set, however, Sorrentino looks to have succumbed to more sensational instincts. Nothing represents Loro as a whole more than the look Sergio gives the camera around ten minutes in while banging one of the girls we've just seen him offer as a bribe, a look that both acknowledges that his is a filthy business, while also seeming to ask the viewer whether they, too, wouldn't love a bit of this. Consider that advance warning of a decidedly horny history - or at least a history that comes on strong, as per Berlusconi legend. Adhering to Sergio's catchphrase "Show me a tit", there's barely a frame in the opening 45 minutes without a mammary thereabouts; your mileage thereafter will depend on the extent to which you find this representative rather than exploitative, and whether even "a bit", in this context, strikes you as too much.
It both helps and hinders that this international cut is such a ragbag; possibly Sorrentino himself wasn't sure what form this material should best take. (I could see clear episode breaks in here - and on TV, it wouldn't seem quite so weird that Sergio disappears for an episode or two.) The single-sitting Loro hits upon extraordinary sights and sequences: a mysterious prologue involving a lamb, a quiz show and an air con unit; a bald-pated PA who suggests a Mediterranean brother to Robert Blake's character in Lost Highway; an exploding garbage truck that seems to cover the whole of Italy with its contents; a recreation of the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake that chimes with the theme of a country being shaken to its rotten foundations. (Sort of brilliant, too, that a film in which an ageing satyr promises to show one young visitor a real-life volcano erupting should instead climax with a papier-mâché replica sputtering out.) And it seizes upon patches of revealing, instructive writing: Berlusconi refuting his grandson's observation that he's just stepped in poop - insisting that he could never step in poop - because only a mediocre mind would believe such a thing, positioning himself as post-truth before the fact. (I also liked Silvio telling Sergio to make sure his bunga-bunga girls eschew the wearing of high heels as "we're not very tall".)
That these isolated moments pop out so, however, is in part down to the film's wafflier, less effective writing and superfluous scenes of bacchanalia, which survive into this cut long after a point has been made. The unreconstructed breastiness is one thing; I personally could also have done with far less of Silvio's singing, although I suspect his houseguests would have thought the same thing. Throughout, we're dangerously close to seeing a national tragedy being replayed as a joshing diversion of the kind Berlusconi's own TV networks dealt in, a feeling only heightened when Servillo pops up in a second role as a businessman keen to finance Berlusconi's political progress. Editorial is being generated here about the kind of tinpot chancers restyling themselves in this Teflon despot's image, but mostly it's a comedy turn in a film that doesn't appear unduly concerned with the sufferings of the Italian people. Sorrentino, granted, makes the regime's superficiality - the slick salesmanship that made fools of millions, the eyecatching surfaces concealing all manner of crimes and misdemeanours - dazzlingly apparent. Yet just as some felt Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street was all too readily available for misappropriation by braying city yahoos, you sense Berlusconi wouldn't be unduly miffed by this lengthy portrait of himself as a master manipulator surrounded by pretty girls with their bits on display like game-show prizes. No legal action has as yet been taken against Loro; in our era of shamelessness, there may be no longer be such a thing as bad publicity. Sorrentino, for his part, emerges from the edit suite with his reputation as a remarkable imagemaker intact, yet questions continue to linger as to whether those images hold much of real substance, and add up to anything more than the shiniest, most flattering of mirrors.
Loro is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.