Fake tans, corruption, sex scandals and crass populism aren’t solely the province of American politics, as anyone familiar with the rise and flail of Italy’s hedonistic media tycoon turned Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will tell you. It’s hard to say whether Oscar winner Paolo Sorrentino’s sleazy/ruminative fantasia “Loro” about the freewheeling Berlusconi — vigorously embodied by Sorrentino favorite Toni Servillo (“Il Divo,” “The Great Beauty”) — will play with headline-weary American moviegoers as commiserative or triggering, or perhaps even redundant. But it’s a truly epic wallow in the sins of a charismatic and indulgent strongman, even if it never exactly balances out its lurid shimmer with lasting psychological resonance.
The onscreen indulgence starts with a disclaimer that what we’re about to see is more invention than fact — composites, made-up characters and scenes — as if to remind everyone that the artist’s prerogative is to be both creative and truthful, which Sorrentino further backs up with a craftily applied quote from critic Giorgio Manganelli: “All documented. All arbitrary.”
“Loro” (“They”) is, after all, a movie with metaphorical fillips that include a lamb wandering into a swanky Sardinian villa, bleating at the air conditioner, then promptly keeling over (that’s the opening scene), and later a street-crossing rat causing a garbage truck to swerve over a railing and crash in front of Rome’s ruins, witnessed by a parade of beautiful women. Unpack those Buñuel-via-Fellini moments as you see fit.
The villa belongs to Berlusconi, who in the movie’s mid-2000s time frame has been ousted, exiled, and is plotting his comeback. But before Sorrentino unveils him, we’re treated to 40 minutes of vice-ridden prologue in which a wily, ambitious southern Italian escort procurer named Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio, channeling a slimier Marcello Mastroianni) dreams of accessing Berlusconi by renting the compound next to the villa and filling it with aspiring, scantily clad (if clad at all) and writhing party girls. It’s a tactic worthy of the media magnate himself, who won over a fractured nation partly by appealing to their collective addiction to sordid, empty television. It’s also an excuse for Sorrentino to pull out all his orgiastic filmmaking chops in the depiction of sexually ostentatious revelry, which gave his Oscar-winning “The Great Beauty” a feverish, even melancholic delicacy but in this instance brings fleshy, flashy prurience to a stylistically queasy breaking point.
The energy shifts when Servillo’s Berlusconi shows up, however, first in harem drag trying to amuse his long-suffering wife Veronica (an effectively sorrowful Elena Sofia Ricci), who wants to leave him, then instructing his grandson how truth is conveyed with “tone of voice and conviction.” This is by way of his insisting, despite contrary visual evidence, that Granddad has not stepped in dog excrement. Eerily pancake-toned and hair-lacquered to match that Berlusconian waxwork appearance, but rubbery and boisterous as needed, Servillo captures the opera buffa pizzazz of this notorious egomaniac as he plots his way back into power (bribery!) while still feeding his appetite for praise and pleasure.
Servillo has a virtuosic, defining scene of hustler panache born of insecurity when, after deciding he will bribe his way back into government, yet worried he’s lost his salesman skills, the septuagenarian calls a random citizen pretending to be a real estate agent. “I think you’re a swindler,” the woman eventually says into the phone after Berlusconi’s long pitch for a nonexistent property. But when she answers his pause with, “Are you offended?” we (and he) know he’s won. Certain people know the dream is impossible but can’t help loving the grandiose personality hawking it. Sound familiar, U.S. electorate?
Had “Loro” been a tighter film built around that moment, Sorrentino could have walked away with a potent bite of revelatory political theater about an era-defining anti-statesman and precursor for Donald Trump’s ascendancy. But this sometimes beguiling but more often strangely engineered movie continues, stretching its increasingly muddy soup of gleaming nastiness and gaudy power plays until even the central portrait of the man himself is more cartoonish than corrosive.
Running time: 2 hours, 38 minutes
Playing: Starts Sept. 27, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles