by George Sax
Politics, Italian Style
In Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino treats former Italian premier Giulio Andreotti (Toni Servillo) as not only the exemplar of Italy’s extravagantly corrupt, intensely conspiratorial, geographically riven and Mafia-infiltrated political system, but also as its human epicenter. He’s a political don, the system’s prime mover. This may strike some as a bit much, but Sorrentino’s flamboyantly expressionistic film flaunts its muchness. It proceeds with a dark snarkiness to surround this purported capo di capi with a landscape of assassinations and suicides of politico-commercial power brokers, operatives, journalists, and magistrates.
Early on, Sorrentino engages in a music-video-like version of one of those old Warner Bros. gangster film montages of gang warfare, and caps it with an upside-down shot of Vatican banker Roberto Calvi’s body hanging head-first from Blackfriars Bridge in London as if he was upright and then rotates the camera. Just what this gayly macabre maneuver signifies isn’t quite clear, but it certainly signals Sorrentino’s drolly cynical approach to his subject.
Il Divo keeps retreating from its rapid-fire sequencing of mayhem and self-destruction into Andreotti’s amber-tinted, richly somber chambers (the photography recalls Gordon Willis’ in the first two Godfather films) as he receives political henchmen, rivals, and ordinary importunate souls. (In one scene, the Mafia insinuations are given a material charge when peasants line up in the premier’s office to present offerings—one man brings a caged rabbit—and beg favors.)
Il Divo often looks and sounds as if Sorrentino’s inspirations had ranged from Citizen Kane to Coppola’s Godfather films, from Fellini’s distorted stylizations to Bunuel’s surrealism. All of these influences are artfully juggled as the film moves between bursts of energy and unsettling quietude.
It begins in the early 1990s when the seven-times elected Andreotti was forming his last government, not long before he came under investigation by a Palermo prosecutor for a large number of suspected criminal combines and homicidal intrigues. From there it abruptly travels backward to the 1980s, after which it seems never to lodge in one place for very long.
Frequently, Il Divo has a dream-like texture and tempo, punctured by acts of violence and historical material. As played by Servillo (Gomorrah), Andreotti is gnomish, hunchbacked with strangely misshapen ears, unsettlingly calm and enigmatic. He’s perilously close to a caricature. It’s as if Sorrentino regarded Italy’s governing caste as an almost absurdist institution.
The results are technically dazzling and engrossing. Even when Il Divo is densely and repetitively obscure, it holds a fascination. Many Americans are likely to be perplexed by the historical references and plethora of barely identified characters. Italians certainly bring a more informed and penetrating point of view to the intricately non-linear narrative. If ever the advice to go with the flow of a film applied, it does with this one.
Sorrentino didn’t try to construct a biopic; he sought to weave an evocation of an era and myth-generating persona.
No doubt, he could have been less opaque but that tack probably didn’t suit his mood and temperament. Sorrentino’s satirical skepticism grooves on the outrageousness of the conduct in his country’s public and private institutions, including, of course, the Church. (On a misleadingly lighter note, consider the present right-wing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s penchant for appointing attractive young women to public office, including Italy’s delegation to the European parliament.)
Where Sorrentino has been inconsistent, and strangely boring, is in allowing his film to wind down in its final scenes as it becomes more docu-dramatic and then ends too suddenly. At one earlier juncture, the elegantly and evasively aphoristic Andreotti remarks to someone that he flummoxed the murderous neo-Maoist Red Brigades when, in the 1970s, they threatened him and he answered with a deceptively waspish statement. They were, he observes, “too serious. They were put off by a witty remark.” This archly epigrammatic note concisely reflects Sorrentino’s approach, but his film doesn’t quite sustain this attitude all the way through.
Watch the trailer for Il Divo
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