Obsessed as we are with blaming Donald Trump for merging demagoguery and celebrity and thus putting paid to liberal democracy, there’s a certain sad comfort in being reminded that he is not entirely a novelty. The orange ogre has a forerunner, though – given his vainglorious egomania – he would probably deny it. As Paolo Sorrentino’s biopic Loro demonstrates, Trump is Silvio Berlusconi redivivus. Marx said that history happens twice, once as tragedy and then as farce. The epigram doesn’t quite suit this succession. Berlusconi and Trump are both farcical – just look at Berlusconi’s implants, which make his scalp resemble Astroturf coated with boot polish, and Trump’s gravity-defying comb-over; the tragedy is ours, since we’re condemned to living in a world owned and managed by such monsters.
Trump’s name is never mentioned in Loro, but neither is Berlusconi’s surname. For the first hour, the cruise ship crooner who became a television magnate and then Italian prime minister is referred to only as lui (‘him’), sometimes even more reverentially as lui lui (‘him him’). Sorrentino’s title is also a teasing pronoun: loro means ‘them’, and it gestures towards the boosters, twisters and fellow-travelling nymphets who made up Berlusconi’s entourage. Despite this obliquity, Loro traces the parallels between sleazy Silvio and the self-branding huckster whose first wife, struggling with English usage, called him ‘the Donald’. Sorrentino’s Berlusconi wants his life to be ‘like a telenovela’, just as Trump runs his presidency like a brawling, scandalous reality show. Berlusconi’s wife says that although he aspires to be a national or even global figure he remains a salesman touting shoddy wares; the same is true of Trump, the wheedling, finagling dealmaker. When a senator comments that Berlusconi’s antics expose his sense of inferiority, the analysis skewers Trump as well.
Behind Berlusconi’s greasepaint and his rictus grin, the performance of Toni Servillo suggests the affectless hollowness of the man. Servillo has played similar characters in previous Sorrentino films: a Mafia operative in The Consequences of Love, a disillusioned playboy in The Great Beauty and the wily politician Giulio Andreotti (seven times prime minister, as opposed to the four stints Berlusconi totted up) in Il Divo. They are all Machiavels who operate behind impenetrable masks, which may be why Sorrentino here gives Servillo a double role, enabling him in one long scene to play both Berlusconi and the cruder, gruffer strategist who engineers his political advance.
Given his protagonist’s vacuity, Sorrentino has problems sustaining the film, which in its original Italian version lasted well over three hours. Andreotti was nicknamed ‘Il Divo’ because Italians worshipped him as a modern Caesar, the deified Julius come back to earth; Berlusconi hardly possesses that grandeur. We are also denied a dramatic reckoning. Servillo’s character in The Consequences of Love suffers a gruesome comeuppance and in The Great Beauty he experiences a sobbing breakdown. But Berlusconi has escaped retribution and nowadays fancies himself an elder statesman: last December he sanctimoniously declared that every night he lit a candle and prayed that the UK would stay in the EU.
Loro tried hard to distract us from an empty centre. It starts with the ascent of a provincial fixer who becomes Berlusconi’s pimp, and it concludes by concentrating on Berlusconi’s tormented wife, a former model who reads novels by José Saramago and undertakes a pilgrimage of expiation to Angkor Wat – imagine, if you can, a Melania with a taste for religious fiction not fashion mags, and a religious conscience into the bargain. In between, Sorrentino indulges his Fellinian gift for revelry. The festivities in The Great Beauty were like extravagant binges at a baroque court; here the spectacle is more allegorically clunky. A garbage truck veers off the road to avoid a rat and explodes in the Roman Forum. A polymorphous pool party in Sardinia ends like the aftermath of a massacre, with strewn bodies slumped in the light of a bleary dawn. Finally there is the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila – a divine judgement on Berlusconi? No, it’s his opportunity to redeem himself. He solemnly comforts an old woman who lost her dentures when fleeing from her capsized home, keeps his promise to rehouse her and even presents her with a new set of choppers.
Fellini’s La Dolce Vita – Sorrentino’s prototype, as Trump’s is Berlusconi – begins with a statue of Christ suspended from a helicopter traversing Rome, mocked by the neo-pagans who glance up at it; Loro ends with a similar statue being winched from the rubble in L’Aquila, although here a congregation of believers looks on in wonderment and gratitude. Acrid satire gives way to pious sentiment, and Berlusconi is allowed to claim that he loved his country and truly wanted to serve it. I suspect that Sorrentino – who has said that his film makes no political judgements and instead takes ‘a tender look at the weaknesses of an old man’ – is as much of a Machiavel as his indestructible, impenitent hero.