There are few public figures as ripe for a biopic as Silvio Berlusconi, and few filmmakers better equipped to take that particular portrait on than Paolo Sorrentino in LORO. Reuniting with Toni Servillo, LORO is a sharp, if initially meandering, takedown of a man who – despite his frequent odiousness – seems to have a devilish wit with words.

The film initially follows Sergio, an unscrupulous huckster and glorified pimp from Taranto, who decides to move to Rome in order to orbit power and catch the attention of Silvio Berlusconi (or “Lui Lui” as he is often referred to during his absence in the film’s opening chapters). Renting an enormous mansion in Sardinia, filling it with young woman auditioned precisely for the purpose of luring Silvio, the film’s focus then switches to the man himself – examining his attitude to power, Italy, his own marriage, and what supposedly makes him unique in the pantheon of Italy’s political operators.

LORO was initially released in Italy as a two-part endeavour running to just over three hours, before being cut down to a single film clocking in at two hours and twenty-five minutes for release and an Oscar run. This version is what screened at Glasgow Film Festival in advance of an April general release.

The trimmed story is the only real shortcoming of the film, the hard shift from Sergio to Silvio feeling jarring, and this might explain why it seems this way. Once LORO settles into its stride, though, this film is a lacerating character study of the man.

“It is not ambition that drives him, nor the intoxicating perfume of power, but simply a desire to not collapse into an old age of irrelevance.”

The script perfectly captures the arrogance of Berlusconi. As his grandchild tries to tell him he has stepped in dog shit, not only does Berlusconi dismiss the idea but he explains that he never will step in it. Even if it looks like he has, it is merely something that resembles it. This idea pops up again, Silvio declaring “appearances only deceive inferior minds”. The charisma and confidence of the figure is built up in these segments before being torn down, reduced to the semi-skilled hustling of a con-salesman. It is not ambition that drives him, nor the intoxicating perfume of power, but simply a desire to not collapse into an old age of irrelevance.

Sorrentino’s Berlusconi is neither villain nor hero, merely a tragic old man. The scale of the lies he tells (“…truth is the tone of our voice, the conviction of what we say…”) is a smokescreen hiding his quest to remain desirable and display vitality. Although the focus on Sergio feels jarring, the vacuousness with which the younger man fills his life highlights the corrupting influence of Berlusconi and what he represents. The perma-tanned Milanese has nothing behind the artifice, using the same lines to cold-call recipients of a fictional real-estate scheme as he does to earthquake victims in L’Aquila.

Throughout, this is all illustrated with the colourful debauchery one might expect, the bright colours obfuscating the moral rot that has set in and slow motion bacchanals allowing a contemplative moment to be taken amongst the chaos. Sorrentino’s idiosyncratic visual metaphors of the impact upon his nation are thick and fast: a garbage truck spirals into the Roman Forum after swerving away from a rat; a sheep collapses and dies in Berlusconi’s mansion because of the conditions therein.

LORO is not a typical approach to a biopic. It feels like the only one Sorrentino could possibly deliver on his subject. It also captures a humorous essence of Berlusconi whilst simultaneously serving him up arrosto.

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