Supreme Italian stylist Paolo Sorrentino returns in tandem with his frequent acting muse Toni Servillo for a colourful, surreal, sometimes brilliant satire on Italy’s Berlusconi years.
“He” isn’t even in the film for the first 40 minutes or so. Instead we concentrate on, Sergio Morra, a small time Puglian gangster (Riccardo Scarmarcio) who is desperate to get an audience with “Him” (“Lui”, as opposed to the “Loro” of the title, which translates as “Them”). So keen is Sergio to catch the great man’s eye that he rents a huge villa in Sardinia across from Berlusconi’s own residence and holds decadent parties full of bikini-clad women dancing by the pool.
Sure enough, like a lazy lizard, the powerful neighbour soon fancies a bacchanal of his own and calls in Sergio to organise it for him, only he’ll need more than 28 dancing girls.
Most of this film does appear to consist of women writhing in gold knickers, snorting drugs and pouting wildly. Sorrentino is a dab hand at filming such things, cranking up the infectious Euro pop until it’s an aural overdose. All this hot European excess, and the terrible Saturday night TV shows and reality programmes that blare on background screens, look like a decent argument for Brexit.
Don’t forget, Berlusconi used to invite all the heads of state to his parties (bunga bunga, they were called, although that name doesn’t seem to come up here – it’s called the “bagaligno show” instead), and he had a book of jokes which he studies in order to liven up his speeches – they’re all sexist, or racist, like a better-groomed Bernard Manning.
For all the grandiosity of the party sequences, there’s a strange flatness to the rest of the movie, a lack of perspective as to what the Berlusconi era meant in a wider sense. “You had a chance to help the Italian people,” yells his wife as she vows to leave him, ”but you only helped yourself.”
Servillo is, indisputably, brilliant here. His Berlusconi looks like one of those bank robbers in American films who wear the rubbery American President masks, a leering, dead behind the eyes version of Nixon, or a grinning, teflon Clinton. This is what power looks like, a puffed-up ball of vanity slipping wedges into his shoes for extra height and patting “bellina” bimbos on the bum until they, everything, becomes a bimbo, to be owned, used, devoured. Indeed, the most frequent word in the end credits is simply “regazza”, girl.
This isn’t real, of course. Sorrentino’s touches of surrealism have a strange power, a white goat bouncing on a trampoline, a garbage truck crashing into the Coliseum, or the brilliant image of raining ecstasy tablets as well as the more traditional Italian film iconography of a Jesus statue airlifted from the rubble of the Aquila earthquake.
What does it all mean? We’re looking for a saviour figure? But how to convey excess without succumbing to it is something the film hasn’t quite got right.