POLITICO Europe By Hannah Roberts
Billowing Bedouin tents, lanterns and a troupe of belly dancers adorn the manicured gardens of a former cardinal’s villa on Rome’s Janiculum Hill, as dozens of beautiful young women, champagne flutes in hand, gyrate to a sensual beat.
A scene from cinema or recent Italian political history? The answer is both: this decadent party is one of the set pieces of “Loro” (“Them”), an upcoming film by Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino that focuses on Silvio Berlusconi and his entourage during the bunga bunga years of orgies at the former prime minister’s villas.
A new film recalling Berlusconi’s sex scandals in widescreen would be the stuff of nightmares for most political leaders, especially at a time when the #MeToo movement is gaining momentum. Coming on top of his other troubles, it should perhaps be enough to bury Berlusconi for good. But the aging lothario has an uncanny talent for snatching victory from the jaws of defeats, gaffes, setbacks and scandals.
The film’s distribution company in Italy, Universal Pictures, declined to say whether it would release the movie before the election on March 4. Even if it doesn’t, news of the movie’s impending release has already pushed the billionaire businessman’s sexual excesses back into the national discussion.
And yet, instead of seeking to stall the film’s opening (the fate of a documentary released before the 2013 election), Berlusconi — who controls the film company Medusa that co-financed Sorrentino’s previous two films — appears relatively relaxed about the production; he even offered the use of his villas as locations.
Berlusconi’s aides declined to comment for this article, but his family’s newspaper Il Giornale listed it among the best upcoming films of 2018, saying the movie “dedicated to Silvio Berlusconi … will be about power, money and charisma.”
Vittorio Sgarbi, a close Berlusconi ally and likely culture minister in any future Berlusconi government, said the billionaire businessman had met with Sorrentino to talk about the film.
“If it comes out before the election, it could be an advantage as it will create a reaction. It’s an interpretation of the events and there will very likely be parts that are offensive and defamatory. But it is not a given that it will damage Berlusconi.”
Most Italians have already formed an opinion about Berlusconi, so a new film is unlikely to change many minds, said Michael Day, author of “Being Berlusconi: The Rise and Fall from Cosa Nostra to Bunga Bunga.”
“He is vulgar, dishonest and unreconstructed, but he is funny,” said Day. “He’s good company. He doesn’t appear spiteful or vindictive. So, people are still able to get a vicarious thrill when they watch him flit by helicopter from one luxury villa to another to have group sex with young women young enough to be his great granddaughters.”
“There have been lots of films on Berlusconi and he is still here,” said Maurizio Gasparri a senator in Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. “This is the usual propaganda but people will vote on real problems: immigration, the economy.”
The secret to Berlusconi’s success is that he does evoke a kind of admiration among parts of the electorate. As for the Sorrentino film, “if it glamorizes events or simply emphasizes the decadent or even absurd side of the bunga bunga saga, it might even boost Berlusconi’s appeal,” said Day.
Rather than damage Berlusconi’s reputation, a film with Sorrentino’s style and composition “is likely to contribute to the myth,” said Catherine O’Rawe, a lecturer in Italian cinema at Bristol University.
If the party scenes are anything like “La Grande Belleza” (“The Great Beauty,” which won the Oscar for Best Foreign-language Feature in 2014), “Loro” will make for a visually spectacular take on that aspect of Berlusconi’s life, she said. The star of “Loro” and “La Grande Belleza,” Toni Servillo, previously played seven-time Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti in Sorrentino’s “Il Divo.”
“Sorrentino didn’t shy away from the dark aspects, but Andreotti still emerges as a star,” said O’Rawe. “That’s the danger.”
Recent polls have shown Berlusconi’s right-wing bloc commanding 39 percent of the vote at most, insufficient to deliver an outright majority. In fact, none of the competing parties is in a position to do so, and so lengthy wrangling to hammer out an alliance — an Italian tradition — seems inevitable.
At 81, Berlusconi is getting on; he suffered a heart attack in 2016. This is probably his last chance to lead the country again and seal his legacy as a statesman. But there are numerous obstacles to Berlusconi’s return to power, including a ban from political office for a tax fraud conviction pending an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
More legal troubles are looming at a new trial later this month, for allegedly corrupting witnesses during his previous trial for paying for sex with a 17-year-old. (In 2015, Italy’s High Court overturned an earlier conviction on the grounds that Berlusconi did not know the girl was under 18 when they had sex.)
Berlusconi can take comfort in the fact that his core supporters are unlikely to be put off by either the new trial or the film. He has always had a predominantly female voting base and the bunga bunga scandal did not change that, said Giovanni Orsina, political historian at the Luiss University in Rome.
Sorrentino’s film will be seen — like the many criminal charges Berlusconi has fought through the decades — as part of a long-running judicial persecution at the hands of a left-leaning pack of prosecutors. “Whatever fallout the bunga bunga scandal was going to have on the vote has already happened,” said Orsina.
For retired lawyer Maria Rosaria Coletti from Rome, a long-standing Berlusconi supporter, the sex scandal was always a politically motivated legal offensive, designed to tie Berlusconi up in court for years and ending in his forced resignation in 2011.
“It was a documented international attack, culminating in a coup d’etat orchestrated by other European leaders,” she said, adding that Berlusconi’s womanizing is not predatory but the inevitable consequence of being the proprietor of a media and television empire. “The few times I’ve met him I’ve seen girls literally jump on him.”
The flipside of Italy’s tolerance for archaic sexual mores is antipathy toward women who dare to challenge it. At the Women’s March in Rome last weekend, Italian actress Asia Argento spoke of the fierce backlash in her home country after she accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of rape. Italy is “stuck in the Middle Ages” when it comes to victims of sex attacks, she said, urging women not to vote for Berlusconi. “The patriarchy has infiltrated our DNA thanks to that pig.”
After a decade of crisis, commentators say gender and #MeToo won’t play a large part in the election, with economic issues taking center stage.
As Colletti put it: “The left have dismantled family values and the values of the church. I don’t see Berlusconi as a god, but he is the one who represents what I want.” For the former cruise ship crooner, the show may yet go on.