BEIRUT: In his 2018 “Loro” (“Them”), Paolo Sorrentino has a lot of fun with animals, and not just the human ones.
About halfway through “Loro 1,” the first of the two-film series, the aspiring young couple Sergio and Tamara saunter through Rome’s streets at nighttime.
Crossing a bridge, they’re accompanied by Sergio’s retinue of a dozen or more beautiful young women, all keen to use their assets to advance themselves, and Sergio.
Their destination is unimportant. What matters, in cinematographic terms, is the well-fed rat that’s decided to dart across the bridge, just as a municipal garbage truck approaches the tarted-up pedestrians on the other side.
Noticing the creature scurrying through the headlights, the driver swerves. Seen from the perspective of Sergio and his bevy, the action slows, allowing the audience to savor the grace with which the garbage truck strikes the curb and takes flight. Like an Olympic diver, the vehicle executes a midair corkscrew as it leaps gradually off the side of the bridge, thudding invisibly on the tarmac below.
The gorgeous gals clatter to the railing and find the garbage truck lying on its side. The fate of the driver isn’t disclosed before the vehicle abruptly explodes. (The rat, we know, is fine.) The ruptured gas tank doesn’t erupt with fire. Rather the truck’s cargo hold bursts open - not unlike John Hurt’s chest in “Alien” - vomiting its contents into the air.
While contributing nothing to the immediate plot of “Loro 1,” the vignette is one of several that seem to encapsulate the “point” of Sorrentino’s entertainment.
It’s no secret that “Loro” is Sorrentino’s biopic of Silvio Berlusconi. Before the credits and characters, subtitles inform the audience that this film is completely fictional, that any resemblance between the characters on screen and actual humans is coincidental.
Immediately you know “Loro” is a comedy. Lebanon will have a chance to laugh along Monday evening, when “Loro 1” raises the curtain on this year’s Beirut International Film Festival.
The story opens on a yacht off the coast of southern Italy. A small-time fixer named Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio) is treating Rocco, a minor government official, to lunch, hoping to win his boss a lucrative contract to cater school lunches. Not biting, Rocco tells Sergio to play fair.
He introduces Rocco to Candida, a former gymnast who shows the minor official her impressive (and rare) physical dexterity. Sergio’s boss wins the catering contract.
Later, while Sergio is enjoying a candid chat with Candida, he notices her thigh is tattooed with the smiling face of a man who, though unidentified, will likely be recognized by any resident of the Mediterranean basin over the age of 30.
Sergio immediately knows he must seek out the big fish in Rome.
He takes the remarkable Candida with him, as well as his wife Tamara (Euridice Axen).
A sexy piece of work herself, Tamara is loyal to her husband and every bit the player that he is.
Sorrentino introduces Tamara in a rapid-fire montage as she microwaves some pastries for her two boys’ supper. In the time it takes the food to warm up, she’s dumped a small mound of coke on a plate, cut it into lines, snorted it, mopped up the residue with a cigarette end and lit it.
Then she serves her kids the pastries on the same plate.
Sergio calls himself Candida’s manager though - based on his habit of exchanging cocaine for sex with his performers - there’s a patina of pimp about him. Most of the lower-echelon members of Silvio’s Rome retinue speak of him in those terms anyway.
Three things allow Sergio to penetrate the politician’s inner circle - his skill in corralling sexy talent, Tamara’s success in manipulating Silvio’s sex-obsessed aide Santino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) and Sergio’s own lust for Kira (Kasia Smutniak) an Albanian-born babe who sometimes sleeps with, yes, “Him.”
The first film of Sorrentino’s biopic falls into two halves that - in terms of location, pacing, cast numbers and the like - are nearly self-enclosed. The first half follows Sergio and Tamara as they connive to get close enough to Him to service His legendary lust.
Silvio (Toni Servillo) is introduced in the second half. Holed up at his palatial Sardinian retreat, he claims he’s sworn off all dalliances in order to make things right with his long-suffering, art-loving wife Veronica (Elena Sofia Ricci).
Sorrentino’s work is troubling for some because, even as he’s mocking his characters’ excesses, he’s so good at recreating how much fun they’re having that you wonder where his loyalties really lie. The sheer number of scantily clad young women here does nothing to dispel that ambiguity.
“Loro 1” isn’t top-drawer Sorrentino. It is a poignant, perceptive, not infrequently hilarious piss-take of self-indulgent power and the bottom-feeders who seek to service it.
Awful as most of these creatures are, Sorrentino’s careful writing, direction and casting ensure that not all are cartoonish. Some are somehow sympathetic.
The Beirut International Film Festival opens April 22. “Loro 2” is scheduled to close the festival on April 28.