Il Divo

Despite it's disjointed and hard-to-follow plotline, Il Divo offers a breathtakingly complete vision of what a great modern political biopic can look like.

Il Divo

Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Cast: Tony Servilo, Fanny Ardant, Anna Bonaiuto
Distributor: Lionsgate
Year: 2008
DVD release date: 2009-10-27

Giulio Andreotti is a funny guy. Sure, the former Italian Prime Minister (and current Senator for Life) has an established reputation in his home country as murderous, emotionless, power-hungry devil, but trust me. The man often nicknamed “the Diva” (in addition to “Beezlebub,” “the Hunchback” and “The Black Pope” is, at least in Paolo Sorrentino’s partial biopic Il Divo, a deeply humorous individual.

Andreotti (embodied magnificently here by Toni Servillo) is basically the smartest guy in the room. He says little, but what he does say is usually insightful (“Power is a disease one has no desire to be cured of.”) and often scathingly witty (“I recognize my limits, but when I look around I realize I am not living exactly in a world of giants.”). The film follows the politician’s life from the start of his last stint as Prime Minister in 1991 through his trial, several years later, for conspiring with the Mafia. And while much of the film’s plot will be difficult to understand for an audience unfamiliar with 20th century Italian politics, it doesn’t really matter. Andreotti, and the characters who surround him, are fascinating enough to keep even a viewer who has never been closer to Italy than a Pizza Hut Express sucked in right through to the closing credits.

In many ways, Il Divo is a classic mobster epic, except its about politicians (although it still has its fair share of mobsters), and will probably go down as The Godfather of movies about the powerful governments that in so many ways often resemble their underworld counterparts. But this film is more Scorcese than Coppola, dominated by a hip, rocking soundtrack and the extensive use of dark humor. Death is a fact of life , as murder was apparently as much a part of politics in the Rome of the '80s and '90s as it was in the Rome of the 180s and the 190s C.E., though the fatal ambushes here go down more like the hits in a Tarantino movie than the quiet killings of The Godfather or the brutal beatdowns of Goodfellas.

Speaking of murders, one extremely effective aspect of this film is the siege-like mentality that seems to haunt Andreotti and his fellow powerful men. They spend most of their time in palaces and offices which are locked up and guarded from the outside world. When one of them ventures out into the streets or the countryside without a heavily-armed escort, death seems to be the inevitable outcome. As a result, it’s easy to see how someone as intelligent as Andreotti can become as coldly ruthless as Michael Corleone, thanks to the never-ending paranoia that such siege-like conditions have induced.

Another movie Il Divo bears more than a passing resemblance to is Oliver Stone’s W. Both films insert real-world quotes into imagined conversations (half of Andreotti’s dialogue in the film can be found on the real Andreotti’s Wikipedia page), and both surround their protagonists with advisers and enemies who are at once laughable and yet terrifying. Sorrentino also takes similar risks as Stone when he chooses to insert some incredibly surreal moments into a movie based largely on real events.

One scene where Andreotti sits expressionless while his cabinet members and nubile young women dance frenetically around him, would seem realistic if the dancers movements were accompanied by the upbeat pop music they are obviously listening to. But instead, the scene is sound-tracked by a thrumming, tension-inducing set of percussion instruments, the rhythmic, machine-like clatter wildly out of step with the joyous movements of the party-goers. What the rabble is moving to doesn’t mean anything, Sorrentino seems to be telling his audience, it’s what’s going on inside Andreotti’s mind that really matters.

But surprisingly novel uses of tired, old “marching to the beat of his own drum” metaphors aside, Andreotti is a character we never fully get to know. Not because Sorrentino fails to explain him, but because there is no one, especially not Andreotti himself, who is reliable enough of a narrator to get to his true motives. There may be a pattern in the way Andreotti speaks to others and treats women, but there can never be any trust placed in his assurances, or even his confessions.

This is highlighted especially well towards the film’s end when Andreotti, who is known for his strong ties to the Vatican, visits his priest during his trial for collusion with the Mafia. Throughout the film, we have seen him make admissions to things in the confession booth that he has denied elsewhere, but when it comes to the accusations of his connections with the mob, he tells his priest that it is all a pack of lies.

Keep in mind, the audience has already seen Andreotti kiss the Boss of Bosses on the cheek right there on the screen. So who is to be believed? Is Andreotti incapable of accepting certain facts about himself, no matter how self-aware he may generally be? Or are the details surrounding his political career to murky to ever be seen clearly, meaning Sorrentino is forced to show conflicting images without the missing links that explain them, in order to tell as much of the story as can possibly be told? It’s not a question with an easy answer.

All in all, Il Divo is two of the best things a movie can be: it is fun, and it is challenging. It rolls along at a steady pace, doling out rocking jams and psychological mysteries with equal gusto. The DVD edition comes with a few deleted scenes, but the most interesting bonus features are its "Making of" documentary and an interview with the director. In both, the filmmaker reveals the clarity of his original vision for this project, and many who see the final product will agree that his unique and arresting take on one of Italy's most enduring figures has been executed flawlessly.

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