Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Italy, the early 1990s. Veteran Christian Democrat politician Giulio Andreotti is appointed Prime Minister for a seventh time. As he writes his memoirs, he recalls the deaths of colleagues, rivals and opponents including former Prime Minister Aldo Moro, kidnapped and murdered by the Red Brigade, confiding only in the priest Don Mario. The murder of MP Salvo Mira, a colleague of Andreotti’s exposes the links between the party and the Mafia, which causes the downfall of Andreotti’s government. Giovanni Falcone, the judge who prosecuted many Mafiosi, encouraged by Andreotti’s own anti-Mafia policies, is also found murdered.
Andreotti’s inner circle attempt to secure him the Presidency, although their lobbying in Parliament results in a humiliating defeat for the former Prime Minister. Numerous individuals implicated in corruption investigations commit suicide, and although Andreotti is similarly accused, he remains unscathed. It was alleged that Andreotti met one of the most prominent Mafiosi, Bontade, and greeted him in Mafiosi fashion, a charge that Andreotti denies. Andreotti is also accused of ordering the murders of journalists and policemen. It emerges that between 1969-1984, Andreotti embarked upon a tension strategy, provoking radical elements to promote the political dominance of centrist parties. This involved collusion between the Mafia, the Vatican and the political establishment to isolate extremists. Andreotti is put on trial.
Paolo Sorrentino’s fourth film and his fourth collaboration with actor Toni Servillo (after ‘One Man Up’, ‘The Consequences of Love’ and ‘The Family Friend’) is his most ambitious and successful film to date and was awarded with the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2008. The release of ‘Il Divo’ and Matteo Garrone’s ‘Gomorra’ hinted at a renaissance in Italian cinema, which to international eyes at least, seemed to have been propped up single-handedly by the films of Nanni Moretti. Although both directors have been on record as denying whether there’s any overt connection between their films or whether they indeed represent a bright future for Italian cinema, there’s no denying that both consider the murky underbelly of Italian politics and society; the influence of organised crime on everyday life and the disturbing connection it holds with the establishment. Both recall the grand tradition of Italian political cinema; the films of Rosi and Petri, but demonstrate a Hollywood-influenced style.
The most obvious barrier to ‘Il Divo’ succeeding outside of Italy is the fact that most audiences will be ignorant of recent Italian political history and will know almost nothing of Andreotti. The challenge for Sorrentino is to engage his audience with these events. Given that Andreotti’s political career spans six decades, it’s impossible to cover much material, hence Sorrentino’s decision to concentrate his film upon the era during which Andreotti’s final government and his party collapsed and he stood trial. Using a series of titles, on-screen captions, flashbacks, memories and monologues, Sorrentino is able to communicate with his audience, to inform them of Andreotti’s rise and the events that caused his fall (though in true Italian style, he has survived and remains prominent in public life). Thus, a series of dizzying cameos of politicians and other public figures with brief biographical details underpin the film, never more prominent than the opening scenes of numerous assassinations in true Goodfellas style. Getting to grips with the material was always going to be an issue, but Sorrentino attempts to clarify as much as possible, though perhaps its natural for non-domestic audiences to watch with a degree of breathless confusion.
At the heart of Sorrentino’s film is the exceptional performance of Servillo. On the surface, his Andreotti is completely unremarkable, seemingly lacking the kind of charm and charisma that united a wildly ambitious and competitive faction (which naturally fell apart once Andreotti was investigated as each tried to save their skin) in awe and reverence. With his prosthetic ears and permanent deadpan expression, Servillo plays Andreotti as some kind of nimble-footed Nosferatu, seemingly only alive thanks to a cocktail of medication and acupuncture. Andreotti is a man of few words, who gives n0thing away with his expressions or body language save reading his hands. As such, using Andreotti as the subject of a biopic makes for an oddly detached film. Although he expresses regret about the death of Moro, during which he questions why the Red Brigade didn’t kidnap him instead, a much stronger and useful victim for their cause, we almost learn nothing about the man himself.
It’s to Sorrentino’s credit therefore that the film retains a rich sense of drama when its subject to so tough to dissect. Nearly two decades on, Andreotti’s equivalent might he Berlusconi, another great survivor of Italian politics. But imagine using Berlusconi as the subject for a film. One might be able to capture his vanity, ego, political incorrectness and courting of controversy with some ease, almost to the point of self-parody. There’s nothing striking about Andreotti; much like the authorities failed to make anything stick to him, Sorrentino can’t make anything stick either in his representation of him.
‘Il Divo’ succeeds in observing the innate corruption and instability of Italian politics, where governments seem to be established and collapse at the drop of a hat. The scenes in Parliament, characterised by chaos, indiscipline and violence seem a world away from the conduct we associate with our own legislative bodies, where even childish name-calling is frowned upon. Although the film doesn’t allow the opportunity to consider why this is, Sorrentino reveals to devastating effect that the entire establishment had colluded to maintain order and stability by isolating dissenting voices and even threatening to undermine democracy itself if necessary. The complicated legal developments that first tried and then ultimately acquitted Andreotti demonstrates a society almost willing to absolve its politicians of any wrongdoing and protect them at all costs and it’s quite a damning outlook.
Even as a director who’s made his name for his visual flair, nothing in Sorrentino’s prior work suggested the breathtaking aesthetical excellence of ‘Il Divo’, which is more influenced by contemporary American film than the European tradition. The montage of assassinations that start the film recall Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’, whilst the slow-motion strut of Andreotti’s inner circle as they attend the establishment of his seventh government knowingly references Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (hinting again at the unholy alliance between organised crime and the political establishment). Not that Sorrentino ever surrenders substance for style; the two work hand in hand brilliantly. ‘Il Divo’ can only ever exist as a snapshot in the long and colourful political career of Andreotti but captures the essence of the man and his approach to politics perfectly, and whilst some audiences might be frustrated by their own lack of knowledge about the subject, it remains a constantly fascinating experience.