LORO (2019, Italy)

September 19, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Silvio Berlusconi is a former Prime Minister of Italy, having served four times. He is also a billionaire businessman who has been deeply involved with Italian politics for more than 20 years. Berlusconi is in his 70’s and has been convicted of tax fraud, accused of conflicts of interest, and is well known for his brash and charismatic personality, as well as his scandalous personal lifestyle and numerous controversies. None of that is required information prior to watching the movie since it’s described as a “fictional” account, but it does help to have a basic understanding of the man.

It should be noted that the film was originally released as Part 1 and Part 2. The international version I watched has been edited to 151 minutes, almost one hour shorter than the two parts combined. It begins by following Sergio Morra, a charming hustler and schemer played by Riccardo Scamarcio (JOHN WICK 2). Along with his wife Tamara (Euridice Axen), he runs a prostitution and escort ring of beautiful young ladies … each willing to show and do whatever is necessary to obtain money, drugs, and a career or rich husband. It becomes apparent that Sergio really wants a chance to meet with “him”, Silvio Berlusconi, in hopes of some type of business partnership. Sergio’s meeting with Silvio’s lead mistress Kira (Kasia Smutniak) cracks the door that he so wishes to enter.

Sergio throws a party at Villa Morena, the home next to Silvio’s sprawling Sardinia country estate. Decadence and wild activities abound, as does dancing by the swimming pool to the thumping Italian techno music. There seem to be no rules, or even etiquette, at the party where nudity, drugs and booze are commonplace. The party gets Silvio’s attention and he agrees to meet with Sergio. It’s at this point where the film shifts to its second narrative. No longer focused on Sergio, the story becomes all Silvio.

Toni Servillo delivers a tour de force as Silvio Berlusconi. Sure, he is masked in make-up to capture the look of someone trying hard to look younger than they are – but that’s exactly what Silvio did (and does). Mr. Servillo manages to become the larger-than-life figure that commands attention in every crowd and every room. Elena Sofia Ricci plays Veronica Lario, Silvio’s wife. We witness their crumbling marriage and the unhappiness she has each day. Silvio’s process with everyone, including his wife, is to shift into smooth political salesman mode. In fact, one of the greatest scenes of all movies this year has Silvio re-capturing his early days as a real estate salesman as he pushes a non-existent apartment on a lonely housewife. The scene features fascinating acting, writing and filmmaking in one fell swoop.

Director Paolo Sorrentino is best known for his Foreign Language Oscar for the fantastic THE GREAT BEAUTY (2013). This film is more extreme and harsh than that one was, and Sorrentino co-wrote this script with Umberto Contarello. Frequent collaborator Luca Bigazzi delivers terrific cinematography. At times the film looks like one lavish fashion shoot. The score and music come from Lele Marchitelli and play a crucial role throughout. Italy is presented here as having declined into a state of hedonism with mass debauchery. It’s uncomfortable watching women stoop to these levels in hopes of being recognized and rewarded with some type of affirmation – either a better career, more wealth, or whatever their dreams might be. A powerful man is there to take advantage of such insecurities. The film touches on Silvio’s political power and the aftermath of the L’Aquila earthquake. Much of the film focuses on the overall amorality of those involved, and though the actions of these folks might go against our own standards, we will admit that filmmaker Sorrentino has a knack for making something so vulgar still look darn good on screen.

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YOUTH (2015)

December 17, 2015

youth Greetings again from the darkness. With a Best Foreign Language Oscar for his previous film The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza), expectations were sky high for this one from writer/director Paolo Sorrentino. Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi is also back and the two create yet another artistic entrée that is a visual extravaganza, worthy of the admission price even if no dialogue existed. Combine the visual artistry with a commentary on age and emotions, and the result is a film that will either enchant or stultify … with probably no middle ground.

Michael Caine stars as Fred Ballinger, a renowned Orchestra conductor, who is vacationing at a stunning Swiss Alps spa with his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) and his long-time best friend, screenwriter Mick Boyd (Harvey Keitel). Fred, a self-professed retiree, is being pursued by Queen Elizabeth’s representative to perform one last concert. Fred is adamant in his refusal … for personal reasons we later learn are due to his nostalgic belief that his wife (no longer able to sing) is the only one who will sing his “simple” songs as long as he is alive. In the meantime, Mick is working with a group of ambitious young writers in an attempt to leave a legacy with his most important film ever. So you can already see that both men are working through their golden years in different ways.

Lena is devastated when her husband dumps her for a young pop singer (played by the real pop singer, Paloma Faith). Oh, one other detail … Lena’s husband is also Mick’s son (Ed Stoppard). This makes for some awkward (but entertaining) moments, and also leads to one of the film’s best scenes – Lena spilling her emotional guts to Fred while they are both covered in a mud bath. Director Sorrentino is a master at twisting these poignant moments with dashes of levity or irony. Another example is when Miss Universe (Romanian model Madalina Diana Ghenea) puts a condescending movie actor (Paul Dano) in his place with a devastating shift in tone and a comeback for the ages.

Sorrentino executes a couple of bizarre dream or fantasy sequences – one with Fred conducting a cow pasture (replete with cows and other bits of nature), and another with Mick being haunted in a meadow by all the female stars from his films (each in costume of their character). Suffice to say, this is not a conventional look at aging. What’s also clear is that Sorrentino believes our emotions drive our actions. The most jarring example is the aftermath when Mick’s long-time leading lady Brenda Morel (played by Jane Fonda) declines to appear in his latest film.

Even the most bizarre segments are presented with a visual artistry that forces our brains to process overtime. How about an obese Diego Maradona (played by Roly Serrano) repeatedly kicking tennis balls into the air? Or big time actor Jimmy Tree (Dano) struggling with his decision to sellout by appearing in a popular robot movie instead of pursuing his desire to be taken seriously as an actor? Or Lena bouncing back with a socially awkward mountain man? Or the seemingly minor role of a young masseuse (played by Luna Zimic Mijovic) who has us yearning for more? In addition to how each of these segments is startling to look at, Jane Fonda’s role has so many nuances that an entire movie could be made about her.

As with The Great Beauty, the film will have the most profound impact on those of us old enough to be looking through the binoculars and noticing how far away the past looks … and wondering just how long until “Life’s Last Day”.

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THE GREAT BEAUTY (La grande bellezza, Italy, 2013)

December 15, 2013

beauty1 Greetings again from the darkness. This is Italy’s submission to the Academy for Best Foreign Film of 2013. If it wasn’t such a beautiful film to watch, a fun game of spot the Italian director influence could be played. Director Paolo Sorrentino owes much to Fellini and La dolce vita, but this is more than a tribute. Sorrentino shows great style and insight, and his commitment to camera angles, movement, colors, textures and faces are quite something to behold.

Toni Servillo plays Jep Gambardella, a man celebrating his 65th birthday by doing what he does most every night … beauty3partying with his group of intellectual friends. Jep had a successful novel published in his 20’s and has since worked sporadically as a journalist, but has never again focused on his writing. One can’t help but notice the similarities to Marcello Mastroianni in La dolce vita, but Jep is jolted with news that sends him flashing back to his younger years and his one true love.  Especially satisfying are the numerous shots of what makes Rome such an enchanting city.  The historical sites and beautiful sculptures and fountains provide quite the contrast to the startling appearance of the party goers.

beauty2 Much of the story includes Roman decadence, and it can easily be viewed as the decline of Roman civilization both past and present. See, Jep’s apartment overlooks the famous ruins of The Colosseum. Even moreso, we get a nice conflict between uppity society and the all too important modern and conceptual art crowd. Toss in a few pot shots at the Vatican and Sorrentino seems to be telling us that everyone takes themselves entirely too seriously … even as we belittle and judge others. Whatever his true message, the sensory overload provided here could be a film class in camera style and is quite fun to watch.

watch the trailer: