Paolo Sorrentino’s Silvio Berlusconi film: 'A porn film without a moral issue'

The film-maker says his new film is ‘a tender look at the weaknesses of an old man’

Toni Servillo as Silvio Berlusconi in Paolo Sorrentino’s new film Loro. Photograph: Gianni Fiorito

Toni Servillo as Silvio Berlusconi in Paolo Sorrentino’s new film Loro. Photograph: Gianni Fiorito

 

Paolo Sorrentino is sitting at a desk in his office in Rome surrounded by movie posters and pictures of Diego Maradona. Five minutes in any direction will bring you to a significant church, basilica or museum, and just around the corner the city’s first Episcopal Church, St Paul’s Within the Walls. But for Sorrentino, Maradona is the most sacred object around.

When Sorrentino was 16 Maradona inadvertently saved his life. When Sorrentino’s parents were killed in a tragic gas leak explosion at their weekend home in the mountains, he hadn’t travelled with them as he wanted to watch Maradona and Napoli play a match in Empoli. When he won the Oscar for best foreign language film in the 2014 Academy Awards, he thanked Maradona in his speech.

“Talent doesn’t just grow out of the ground,” says Sorrentino. “It’s something that you have to work hard at. There are many people who would like to do the type of work I do. They would like to make films. But they can’t because they don’t have the patience, and they don’t work hard enough. You have to keep digging for talent, Sometimes you’ll get stuck and sometimes you’ll hit a rock. But there are a few exceptions. Maybe once in every 100 years people are born with natural talent.” He points to Maradona’s picture: “Like him.”

Sorrentino had hoped to develop a biopic on the footballing legend until he discovered that Amazon had beaten him to the punch with an epic biographical series starring Nazareno Casero, Juan Palomino and Nicolas Goldschmidt, playing Maradona at different ages.  Yet that may be for the best. The Italian auteur behind the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty and the Cannes-conquering Il Divo swears he’s done with biography.

“When you make a movie about a famous person or famous celebrity you start in a disadvantaged position because people don’t want to know what you think; they want to recognise what they think,” says Sorrentino.

Good and bad

“So as a film-maker and as a writer this makes you quite irrelevant. People want to split the world into good and bad, into heroes and villains. Such simplicity is just not that interesting. That’s the reason why I will no longer make films about people who exist. Especially not someone who is so well known.”

One can understand his reluctance. Loro (meaning “them”, but also a word play on l’oro, meaning “the gold”) concerns the misdeeds of the media tycoon and Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi in the years between 2006 and 2009. Sorrentino’s eighth film as director is a whopping enterprise. The 151-minute cut that will be released in this territory has been cut down from two films – totalling 205 minutes – that premiered in Italy last summer.

“It was difficult but not as much as I thought,” he says. “I knew I had to make two versions. I didn’t pay too much attention to what would be of interest to an international audience. I just tried to make them as consistent as possible.”

This is the director’s second pop at a prime minister. Il Divo, a dazzling, audacious account of Giulio Andreotti, a seven-time prime minister of Italy famed for his alleged ties to the Mafia, made Sorrentino an international superstar in 2008.

“All that the films have in common is that they are two movies about two politicians,” says Sorrentino. “As men of power, they’re quite different. Il Divo is basically a movie about an antique. Loro is more dynamic.”

And yet it’s impossible not to regard Loro as part of a larger scheme of directorial preoccupations with power, a theme Sorrentino recently revisited in The Young Pope.

His Berlusconi is presented in a flurry of grotesquerie and nudity. The film splits its time between the former Italian prime minister and such hangers-on as Sergio Morra (Riccardo Scamarcio), an ambitious pimp.

Cocaine is snorted off buttocks. Young girls comply with the most demeaning requests. Dozens of naked women amass for collective prostitution.

Paolo Sorrentino: “When you make a movie about a famous person or famous celebrity you start in a disadvantaged position because people don’t want to know what you think; they want to recognise what they think.” Photograph: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
Paolo Sorrentino: “When you make a movie about a famous person or famous celebrity you start in a disadvantaged position because people don’t want to know what you think; they want to recognise what they think.” Photograph: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Some critics have argued that you can’t do a biographical film about Berlusconi without having sexism; others have speculated that the film’s vulgarity may be the reason it wasn’t screened at Cannes: Loro is Sorrentino’s first film since 2004 not to be invited to the Croisette. Rolling Stone’s Italian critic dismissed the film as “a porn film without a moral issue”.

Tell a story

Against this, Sorrentino has maintained that Loro is “a tender look at the weaknesses of an old man”. He was similarly ambivalent on Giulio Andreotti.

“I’m trying to tell a story, not condemn,” he told me upon the release of Il Divo. “It would be a terrible waste of energy to just hate like that. Andreotti is contradictory and mysterious, not simply good or bad. He is cynical but human.

“The movie I made is a movie describing a human being because basically we are all human beings,” he says of Loro. “I wanted it to be a kind of fantasy. I wasn’t interested in what is real and what is true. What really happened is known only to the people involved. That’s not the kind of film I want to make.

“I wanted my impression and I wanted to let my imagination step in. This is the reason I make movies: I make movies because I want to have fun, and I want to be entertained. I’m a sufficiently dishonest film-maker.”

Going into production Sorrentino had dinner with Berlusconi at Palazzo Grazioli, the mogul’s Rome residence, where, in 2008 he allegedly entertained a young female Big Brother contestant instead of attending a UN summit.

Berlusconi initially offered his own villas in Sardinia and Milan as party-scene locations. The film-maker refused, saying “if I had accepted his offer I would have been complicit in representing him in more or less the way he would like”.

“When I sat down to write this script it was the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, so Berlusconi was already out of the political scene,” says Sorrentino. “So this was a chance to consider that moment when his popularity peaked. People talk about it as a little empire. But it is gone. It’s like taking issue with the Crusades.”

The film-maker is bemused by assertions from multiple American critics framing Loro as a Trumpian tale about demagoguery.

“I’m so scarcely intelligent that I learnt nothing making this movie,” he laughs. “It was actually made because I’m obsessed with my lack of knowledge of things. So I made a movie about Berlusconi because it was a way to be able to know something about him. If there’s one person who understands nothing about Berlusconi or Trump or demagogues that’s me.”

Dual roles

Loro marks the fifth film collaboration between Sorrentino and actor Toni Servillo, who here has dual roles as Silvio Berlusconi and billionaire banker Ennio Doris.

Servillo previously won best actor at the 26th European Film Awards for his role as an ageing journalist in Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. He also played Giulio Andreotti, who served as Italian prime minister in the 1970s and at the turn of the 1990s, in Il Divo.

I wonder did Sorrentino write with Toni’s voice in his head or Berlusconi’s voice?

“No, no, no,” he says. “None of the two. I write with one single voice for one single viewer: myself. It’s always in my voice.

“When I was a teenager and even before, when I was a young kid, I made a lot of shorts which I didn’t show to anybody. I just did them because I wanted to watch them myself. That’s why I’m a happy film-maker. Because I make films for me. Even if I no longer had an audience I would go back and make shorts just like I did when I was younger.

“I’m not all that interested once I’ve finished a movie. I don’t care who sees it or who likes it. Clearly I’m happy when people go watch it because this allows me to make another movie. But the only thing that matters to me is that I made it and then I watch it, and I decide whether it’s good or bad. And then it’s done.”

Loro is released April 19th

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