Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino creates movies of overwhelming imagery that is indulgently decadent and starkly beautiful, conveying emotions that are terrifying and touching. Sorrentino’s latest film, “Loro,” reunites him with actor Toni Servillo, a frequent collaborator on films such as “Il Divo” and “The Great Beauty,” which won the Oscar for foreign-language film in 2014.
“Loro” is a look at the controversial media mogul-turned-politician Silvio Berlusconi. (And, yes, the story of a businessman with showbiz ties turned political leader may now feel eerily familiar and even prescient to American audiences.) The film captures Berlusconi in his life after being Italy’s prime minister, living in relative exile in an outlandishly outsized villa, given to mercurial moods and scheming to find a way back into political life, surrounded by all manner of hustlers and strivers.
“Loro” was originally released in Italy in two parts in 2018. A shorter international version that combines the two into one film is now playing in Los Angeles and available on VOD. Sorrentino and Servillo sat down for an interview together when the international version premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. More recently, Sorrentino spoke on the phone from Los Angeles, where he is finishing post-production on the upcoming HBO series “The New Pope,” starring Jude Law, and developing “Mob Girl,” a feature film set to star Jennifer Lawrence.
How did you feel “Loro” was received in Italy?
Sorrentino: I think well. I didn’t follow too much the reaction, to tell you the truth, because the topic lends itself to a lot of discussions, controversies and diatribes that I didn’t want to follow.
I do love that idea that the audience can judge the movie according to the political ideas that they have. I prefer to think of it as a movie about a man, about his feelings about his history, his problems with his life, with his wife and with the people around him.
How true is the story of the movie?
Sorrentino: Like any fictional interpretation of stories, it’s a mixture. The starting point is reality, of course. And we tried to be as believable and have as much similar to the truth as possible. But of course, we insert our own elements of imagination. When it comes to the private life of Berlusconi, obviously it’s a more inaccessible sphere. We have to resort to imaginary reconstructions of that life. So we’re hoping that it is as realistic as possible starting from the knowledge that we all have about Berlusconi.
Toni, did you have strong feelings about Berlusconi before making the movie?
Servillo: Certainly I had my own opinions about Berlusconi, which did not influence my interpretation of the character, which was dictated by what was written in the script. Of course we’re talking about an extraordinary case. We have an Italian politician who is unique in the history of our politics. But this is a man who did not offer any political vision, he presented an illusion of politics. He used his system, basing himself not on a political heritage but on his experiences in show business, and he inserted himself into the depths of the Italian soul as a film star. There are politicians who create a community around them and there are politicians who create a dramatic relationship between the boss and the crowd. And that’s what Berlusconi is.
Have either of you met him?
Sorrentino: Twice for lunch, at his home in Rome. The first time I met Berlusconi, I was with these other guys that met him for another reason. Second time, he invited me because I was ready to shoot the movie, so he invited me for lunch.
I think he had a double feeling about it. He was excited because he’s vain and so he was pretty excited about the movie, about himself, but at the same time he was also concerned about the kind of things that I put on screen. He was worried I wouldn’t recognize him for his important role as a politician, as he sees it.
Do you want people to feel sympathetic toward him? Did you want to humanize him?
Servillo: No, I certainly don’t want people to feel sympathy for him. I would like audiences to observe this film with a critical slant to reflect about what happens when people who have nothing to do with politics get into politics. And that degenerates the nature of the political spectrum. It creates a system of stalemate. I would like people to be aware of the fact that there are very few scenes in the film that take place in the political chambers because you have people who trained and shaped their approach to life outside of the political arena. And when that happens, they end up protecting the interests of the few and not the interests of the people.
Sorrentino: No, I didn’t want to humanize Berlusconi. I concentrated on the man and not the politician. To latch onto what Toni was saying before, Berlusconi as a politician did not produce any extraordinary results. Berlusconi’s political life is known to everybody. What is more mysterious is the human aspect. And that is what I found more interesting for the film. I just wanted to tell his story the way I understood it, that at the bottom of his behavior there is a great deal of fear, fear of aging, a fear of getting old. And there’s a complex relationship that the ultra-rich have with themselves. They are frustrated by the fact that their wealth does not ensure them something more than what everybody else has.
Servillo: I don’t think that Berlusconi is a caricature. I think that history will tell us that this image that Berlusconi created is more real than anything.
I think that history will tell us that this image that Berlusconi created is more real than anything.
The scenes of him alone with his wife in particular are very surprising, even vulnerable.
Sorrentino: This is an aspect, a side of the character that I was very much interested in. That is the wife’s point of view. Berlusconi’s wife has always been close to him, but has always represented an internal opposition to Berlusconi, who has always been surrounded by people who grant him unconditional ascent to anything he desires. Whereas the wife presents a different point of view and often in opposition to Berlusconi. I wanted to show that even in that world of extremely rich people seemingly distant from our own, there are arguments, there is suffering and there are difficulties that couples experience. Especially couples that are older and that have been together for a long time.
Toni, how did you prepare for the role?
Servillo: I had the opportunity to play another historical character and politician with Paolo, I played [former Prime Minister Giulio] Andreotti in “Il Divo.” A character, a man who lived in a very distant age from where we are today. And things move so fast in the way we live them. I did not try to prepare myself by reading books or anything like that. The fact is that these characters have dominated the political scene so much and especially Berlusconi was so overwhelming in the media that they have become a part of us. They’ve entered inside of us. So I just stuck to the script.
I’m friends with Bruno Ganz, who played a much more difficult, and complex historical character, Adolf Hitler [in 2004’s “Downfall”; Ganz died in February]. And when they asked him the same question, he said, “I just go on set without thinking.” So what I’m saying is you should not let yourself get overwhelmed by history, by the news. But what you want to do is to suggest in the viewer a different vision of actual, real facts.
Can you tell me more about the relationship between the two of you? What draws you back to working together?
Sorrentino: Let’s set aside the skills that Toni has and anybody can see, for me having Toni in my films is just like having a wiser older brother. He makes me feel more comfortable, more relaxed, more safe. And I’ve always felt that way when I’m making a film with Toni. Then when I’m making other films where he’s not in it, I’m missing the figure of somebody who knows me, who can intuit a problem, based on very, very few elements and he can help me get out of it. Obviously as an actor, he can add complexity to characters, the nuances that you can ask not only from a highly talented actor, but also a highly intelligent actor. You can’t ask anybody to do what Toni does. So it’s not just a matter of talent, but it’s also his ability to think and to synthesize that he has that no other Italian actor I know has.
Servillo: Well, I said many times that Paolo’s talent is extraordinary as a director. But as a screenwriter and a dialogue writer, he is formidable. And in a film that is so eloquent visually, the wonderful scene where Berlusconi is selling an apartment over the phone, that’s an amazing scene with him trying to confirm to himself that he still has it as a salesman. Only a writer who understands how to write dialogue well, how to write characters well, can offer you this kind of opportunity. Also, we have a great friendship. This is the fifth film that we make together. So there’s something mysterious between us and it’s something that allows us to testify in the company of each other and to accept certain very difficult challenges from a cinematic point of view.
Here in America, the movie makes us think of our own president, Donald Trump.
Sorrentino: I started writing this well before Trump came onto the political scene, so it wasn’t something that was done with Trump in mind. And I think that in many ways, Berlusconi and Trump are actually quite different. But what they do have in common is sort of where they come from, this world of businessmen.
Do you think there are any lessons people in America can learn from Berlusconi?
Sorrentino: I don’t quite know how to answer that. It would be very presumptuous of me. I’m not really an expert in politics. I wanted to show the sort of human side and the hidden side of Berlusconi and for me the politics that you do see in the film are really just a way in which to dramatize the human side, that human aspect of Berlusconi’s story. But I can’t really comment much on the political component of it.
So many of your movies explore these men with outsized, dynamic personalities. What draws you back to these sorts of characters?
Sorrentino: These specific stories that I tell are often about people who have an ability to express their power in a more amplified way, given the positions that they have. I’m always particularly interested in power dynamics, especially if that might involve, for instance, the dynamics within a relationship and a couple.
It was announced that you’re going to be making a movie called “Mob Girl” starring Jennifer Lawrence. Is that going to be an example of you exploring the same kind of power dynamics but from the point of view of a woman?
Sorrentino: This is exactly what I wanted to do, was to tell the story from a woman’s point of view and to explore the power dynamics from a feminine standpoint in a world that is overwhelmingly dominated by men. And, the mafia, this would be a particularly new way of looking at it. And that’s what interested me.
So many of your movies have big party scenes. In “Loro” there is something very unsettling about them. Did you want them to feel different?
Sorrentino: So shooting big party scenes, that’s always a lot of fun for us to shoot. There’s a certain decadence in the party scenes in “The Great Beauty,” but the parties still have a sense to them. So it’s a sort of decadence, but there’s a point. With the party scenes in “Loro,” it’s really more a display of ostentatious vulgarity, but there’s still a sensuality to it. And I was interested in exploring this relationship between vulgarity and sensuality.
Do you yourself like going to big parties?
Sorrentino: No, I almost never go. Real parties are often a disappointment, so I prefer to invent these parties that I would want to attend.