Il Divo (2008)

Il Divo first published by Film4

Summary: For his fourth feature, Paolo Sorrentino uses the ambiguous character of statesman Giulio Andreotti to uncover the slipperiness of Italy’s postwar politics.

Review: “I know who you are. You can’t spend your life with a man and not know who he is. I know who you are.”

These words may be addressed to Giulio Andreotti (Toni Servillo) by his wife of many decades Livia (Anna Bonaiuto), but in fact the whole of Italy, if not the world, ought to feel more than a little acquainted with a man who has dominated the nation’s political landscape for over half a century. After all, the Christian Democrat first entered government in 1947, has been Prime Minister seven times, and remains to this day [2008] a Senator for Life. Yet as her husband faces charges of conspiracy, collusion with the Mafia and even murder, the panicky doubt that can be read in Livia’s face reflects a country’s confusion (and denial) about its own identity in the turbulent postwar years and beyond. Murky times call for murky politics, and few in office have proved as elusive and impenetrable as Andreotti, even to those who suppose they know him best.

The decision to make a biopic of one of Italy’s most influential and controversial statesmen might at first seem something of a departure for writer/director Paolo Sorrentino, whose previous features have all been stylish exercises in fiction – but then Il Divo is a docudrama like no other, mixing real events with dreams, actuality with allegory, and facts with speculation. Here the assassination of Judge Giovanni Falcone is not only shown in explosive detail (to a raucous rock track), but also figured more symbolically as a skateboard rolling out of control through the corridors of power. Here the arrival of each member of Andreotti’s inner circle to celebrate his seventh inauguration as Prime Minister is accompanied by a Morricone-style whistle, as though this were a posse gathering in a spaghetti western (one of them even cocks his finger like a gun) – and although they do not yet know it, this will indeed be their last stand, before the scandals of Tangentopoli (or Bribesville) blow in to clean up the town. 

In fact, for all his historical reality (and his status as a political precursor to the machinations of Silvio Berlusconi), Andreotti comes across as a typical Sorrentino invention. He shows the same wit and discretion as the anti-hero (also played by Servillo) of The Consequences of Love (2004), is just as hunch-backed and susceptible to crippling migraines as the protagonist of The Family Friend (2006), and is, despite his power and celebrity, as lonely and isolated as both these characters. The film spans Andreotti’s seventh Premiership, his failed bid for the Presidency and the build-up to his trial, all in the early Nineties, but it manages to encompass many of the key events in his (and Italy’s) earlier political life – not least the 1978 abduction and eventual murder of his Christian Democrat colleague Aldo Moro (Paolo Graziosi) by the Red Brigades, and the Right’s ‘strategy of tension’ throughout the Seventies) – and also to play with more universal concerns as Sorrentino once again pursues his favourite themes, the monstrousness of humanity and the ordinariness of evil. As Andreotti himself puts it: “I’ve never believed one can divide humanity into two groups: angels and demons. We’re all average sinners.”          

In one scene, Andreotti tears the last page from a crime novel that he is reading, and declares, “The killer was about to be revealed – I never want to know.” Sorrentino has evidently taken a leaf out of his subject’s book, dramatising Andreotti’s studied evasions and ambiguities while leaving solutions and certainties entirely to the viewer’s imagination. We learn only what is already a matter of public record – that Andreotti, the great survivor, was eventually cleared of all charges in Italy’s highest court for want of any concrete evidence against him. Whether he is, as one of his detractors puts it, “the most cunning criminal in the country” or “the most persecuted man in the history of Italy” remains devilishly unclear – but regardless of any actual mob connections that Andreotti may or may not have had, Sorrentino carefully likens his conduct in office to that of a self-styled Godfather, holding beneficent court to his constituents, letting others do his dirty work for him and, most importantly, observing a code of silence no less strict than the omertà of the recently captured ‘Boss of Bosses’, Totò Riina (Enzo Rai).

Despite its bewildering range of characters and events, Il Divo remains  anchored by Servillo’s drily slippery performance, and by sheer filmmaking bravado. Politics can often be a staid business, but the camera of Sorrentino’s regular DP Luca Bigazzi never stops moving, and focuses on the details and angles others would miss. It is an eccentric approach, to be sure, thoroughly reinventing the way in which history’s facts and fictions can be told – but it is also a thrilling enigma from start to finish, reaffirming Sorrentino’s status as one of the most exciting and innovative craftsmen in European cinema today.     

Verdict: Often funny and always thrilling, this vibrant portrait of one of Italy’s most agile political survivors has warnings for us all about the quieter exercises of power.  

© Anton Bitel