TIFF 2018 Dispatch #8: Noble Failures from Paolo Sorrentino and Emilio Estevez

TIFF 2018 Dispatch #8: Noble Failures from Paolo Sorrentino and Emilio Estevez September 15, 2018
Toni Servillo, as Silvio Berlusconi, in “Loro”

As merely a part-time film critic, I try to carefully curate the films I screen for review.  I’d rather introduce readers to films worth their while, and frankly, I take no lasting pleasure in writing unflattering words about someone’s efforts at artistry.

But sometimes, disappointing films sneak through my curating process, and sometimes the process of taking apart such films helps me comprehend their failures.

Yesterday’s films at TIFF furnish two such examples.  Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro was by far the biggest dasher of hopes, since two of his creations (Youth and The Great Beauty) make my very short list of best films from the past five years.  Each is a superb meditation on the passage of time, stuffed with gasp-inducing visual imagery and inspired musical selections.  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched them, but each viewing is still a rewarding, affecting experience.

In Loro, there are no sudden appearances of giraffes in Rome or morbidly obese soccer players with Karl Marx tattoos splayed across their massive backs.  The attempts at inspired imagery, with one exception, feel synthetic and tired.  Instead, Sorrentino (in a move akin to Martin Scorsese in The Wolf of Wall Street) has chosen to fill his new film with an exhausting parade of women’s breasts, buttocks, and genitals.  Always a highly sensuous director, Sorrentino in Youth and The Great Beauty still managed to pull short of outright lewdness.  Not this time.

Loro opens with a lengthy sequence involving Sergio Morra, a small-time wheeler and dealer from the boonies who aims to hit it big in Rome.  Desperate to score the attention of Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Morra rents a Sardinian villa next to Berlusconi’s and stocks it with beautiful women.

The problem is that Morra’s story is not that interesting and drags out far too long.  When we finally meet Berlusconi, played with marvelous gusto and range by Toni Servillo, Loro picks up momentum, but only sporadically.

And this is all too bad, because Sorrentino and his co-writer Umberto Contarello have important things to say about politics today.  Morra as a small-scale Berlusconi is meant to shine a light on the Prime Minister’s grotesque profligacy; while Berlusconi’s wife Veronica symbolizes all of Italy, seduced by a charismatic figure, but aging poorly under his influence.

Emilio Estevez and Michael Kenneth Williams, in “The Public”

Past successes also made me optimistic about Emilio Estevez’s latest film The Public.  Though I suspect he’ll always be best known for playing the jock in Saturday detention in The Breakfast Club, Estevez has more recently directed two solid films, Bobby and The Way.  

The first of those, following multiple characters on the night of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, serves up a tragic reminder of the man who could’ve been the great American president of the second half of the 20th Century.  The Way is far more intimate, casting his own father Martin Sheen as a bereaved father who rediscovers his better self through walking Spain’s Camino de Santiago.  (On a personal note, I’ll always be grateful to this film for helping to pull me out of a post-divorce funk and nudging me to start traveling with my kids again.)

The Public is certainly as well-intentioned as those two films.  Set in present-day Cincinnati, Estevez plays inner city librarian Stuart Goodson.  Clearly a good son of the city, he’s kind to the colleagues he supervises and interacts compassionately with the homeless men using the library as a spot to clean and warm up.

Being in the middle of a deadly cold spell, the homeless men know the shelters are already full and that some of them will die if they take to the streets at the library’s closing time.  Led by Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams, more than holding his own in his meatiest role since The Wire), the men choose instead to peacefully occupy the library and refuse to depart.

The battle lines are thus drawn, with Estevez sympathetically drawn to the men’s plight.  On the other side are hostage negotiator with a bad haircut Alec Baldwin and smarmy public prosecutor Christian Slater.  A dim-witted news reporter seeing a chance for national exposure is thrown in to heighten the tension.

As you might’ve gleaned from this synopsis, The Public is hobbled by clichéd stock characters.  Its story takes turns that only happen in Hollywood; and its ending, though unexpected, is unsatisfying and doesn’t hold up under closer examination.

I will give it credit for having some very funny moments.  And its critique – of heartless urban governments that see the homeless as a nuisance rather than as fellow humans, of police departments lusting to solve problems with force – is as timely as ever.

Loro:  2.5 out of 5 stars

The Public:  3 out of 5 stars

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