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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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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