Dirty, Rotten Statesman
It's not only US cinema that has explored the relationship between power and corruption. Loro is Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino's companion piece to his earlier Il Divo (2008). That film took aim at former Italian Prime Minister Guillio Andreotti, whereas Loro focuses on the world of Silvio Berlusconi.
Not just the disgraced leader (who is still admired by many), but the environment he has helped foster. Hence the title, which translates as 'Them'. Sorrentino's The Great Beauty (2013) also explored a cross-section of Italian life – the Roman bourgeoisie – but though that cultural elite is pedantic and self-satisfied, they pale compared with the venality of the group seeking favours from their tanned benefactor. (Proof that Sorrentino didn't exaggerate this world can be found in the disturbing 2009 documentary Videocracy.)
Loro is just the latest in a long line of films that explores the corrupting nature of power. And Italy is a key country when it comes to some of the best. Firstly, it produced one of the first great epic films, which detailed a society destroyed by excess. Giovanni Pastrone's Cabiria (1914) offered up a startling portrait of a corrupt world and its ultimate destruction. In the US, D.W. Griffith followed suit with his Intolerance (1916).
It was in the 1930s that films about power in the political world began to appear more regularly. Frank Capra made a loose trilogy of films that started with an innocent man almost corrupted by a world he encounters. Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) saw Gary Cooper's eponymous hero maintain his dignity in spite of the ill will of others. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), James Stewart faced a more malevolent political opposition as he attempted to save his country from authoritarianism. That notion is taken to extremes in Meet John Doe (1941), with Gary Cooper featuring once again, this time slightly more compromised and almost defeated by US political forces that are clearly modelled on the fascists that were reeking destruction in Europe.
At the same time, the comedy director Preston Sturges made his feature debut with The Great McGinty (1940), a political satire that featured vote rigging during an election. Sturges also wrote the script for the 1933 drama The Power and the Glory, whose posthumous study of a ruthless businessman who sought office in order to advance his own interests is seen as an inspiration for Citizen Kane (1941), arguably the greatest film to grapple with the ways in which power can corrupt.
Preston Sturges debut may have held up a mirror to certain aspects of American political life, but his satire is eclipsed compared to the manic onslaught of Charles Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940). Chaplin did what Hitler would likely have hated most – he ridiculed him. Though the film also engages with the seriousness and tragedy of the dictator's ideology and brutality, it's at its best when it tears down the image of strength to present an idiot whose ego and whims are parodied to brilliant effect. By comparison, Benito Mussolini, who has often been portrayed as a fool is taken seriously in Marco Bellocchio's Vincere (2009). It focuses on the young leader's rise to power through his relationship with his secret lover, Isla Dahler. What Bellocchio skilfully reveals is the way that people in power rewrite their own history to suit their ends, often to the cost to others.
As society became more distrustful in the 1960s and 1970s, films that skewered the political elite increased in numbers. It was most clear in two satires starring Henry Fonda: Advise & Consent (1962) and The Best Man (1964).
Both were set in and around Congress, in Washington. Because of his good guy image, Fonda was morally upstanding in both. It's that screen persona that allowed him to play the juror with a conscience in 12 Angry Men (1957), a decent President in Fail Safe (1964) and, two decades before, a cowboy fighting for justice and against mob mentality in William Wellman's extraordinary The Ox-Bow Incident (1942). This streak of on-screen goodness made Fonda's transformation into the psychopathic gunslinger and henchman for big business and political elites in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) all the more shocking.
In Italy, Francesco Rosi offered up a starling portrait of political corruption in the gripping Hands Over the City (1963), which details dodgy land deals between politicians and building contractors in Rome. Rosi's sense of outrage at the moral and ethical void in Italian politics would continue into the 1970s with The Mattei Affair (1972) and Illustrious Corpses (1976), a conspiracy thriller that could equal any made in the US in the same era. In the US that year, Alan J. Pakula directed All the President's Men, which detailed the investigation by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that helped expose the Watergate scandal that eventually led to Richard Nixon's resignation as Commander-in-Chief. The film was the final in a conspiracy trilogy that began with Klute (1971) and continued with The Parallax View (1974), both of which looked with increasing unease at the relationship between politics and the faceless power of corporations. But arguably the best US film of this period to explore the insidious and all-encompassing nature of power and its ability to destroy is Chinatown (1974), which uses the scandalous rerouting of water sources in and around Los Angeles in the 1930s as a way of exploring the ruthlessness of an ageing patriarch.
The last year has seen films such as Vice and The Front Runner, which show that audiences' fascination with the relationship between power and greed continues unabated. If Loro has a companion film in the US, it's Warren Beatty's wild and raucous satire Bullworth (1998).
In contrast to Loro's Berlusconi, Beatty's hero, a US senator in the pocket of multinationals, becomes a good guy. Fed up with a life of privilege as a result of his willingness to sell his Senate votes to the highest bidder, he has an epiphany mid-way through an election campaign and decides to come clean about the political world. Moreover, he does it in the guise of a rapper. The set-up shouldn't work, but the film's all-out attack on the political establishment makes it a singular achievement. Likewise, Paolo Sorrentino might continue in the footsteps of Nanni Moretti and 2006's The Caiman with his portrait of Berlusconi. But when his Italian films are taken as a whole, they present a compelling portrait of a troubled nation.
The late reign of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is the focus of Paolo Sorrentino's (The Great Beauty) latest film.
Sergio is a guileful businessman who manages a group of young escorts whom he uses to bribe local politicians and authority figures. With a desire for increased political leverage, he sets his eyes on bigger game and makes it his duty to work his way into the ranks of a man with a taste for both hedonism and corruption - the notorious Silvio Berlusconi.
Full of satire and scandal - biopics don’t come more unauthorised than this.
Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro plays in cinemas from Friday 19 April
Loro is also available on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday 19 April