Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Review - Il Divo

Paolo Sorrentino's
Il Divo is subtitled: The Spectacular Life of Giulio Andreotti, and the director certainly opens his film in suitably spectacular fashion. In a superbly assembled montage, we see a number of bankers, politicians and journalists meeting their deaths, including "God's banker" Roberto Calvi, who was found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge, and Aldo Moro, who was kidnapped and killed by the Red Brigade terrorist group. The suggestion is that all or some of these incidents had something to do with Giulio Andreotti, a man who dominated Italian politics for fifty years, serving seven terms as prime minister and being named as a senator for life in 1991. During his career, Andreotti has also come under investigation by the parliamentary committee no less than 26 times, and on each occasion he has walked away without being charged. As one character in Il Divo puts it: "You're either the most cunning criminal in the country, because you were never caught, or you're the most persecuted man in the history of Italy."

The mystery of Giulio Andreotti is at the core of Sorrentino's film, the young Italian director's fourth feature, and his first masterpiece. Trying to prove Andreotti's guilt one way or another would be a fool's errand, given that he has already escaped prosecution from the state on so many occasions, so Sorrentino instead presents
Il Divo as an oblique character study and a portrait of a political system built on corruption. It is set in the early 90's, during Andreotti's seventh and final government, and prior to the trial at which he faced accusations of links with the mafia. Before the film begins, Sorrentino offers a glossary of terms aimed at helping the uninitiated through the murky, complicated world or Italian politics, and each time a new character appears onscreen, they are accompanied by a caption explaining who they are. These notes are appreciated, but they didn't entirely dispel the haze of confusion Il Divo frequently cooked up, and while a second viewing and some thorough research helped me untangle a few (not all) of the film's complexities, there's no doubt plenty of non-Italian viewers will find a number of allusions and references flying over their heads.

Trust me, it doesn't matter. Even while I was perplexed by
Il Divo I found myself utterly intoxicated by it, and that's down almost entirely to Sorrentino's breathtaking directorial style. There are few filmmakers working in cinema today who are as confident, brash and outrageously talented as this Italian auteur, and he attacks Andreotti's story with all of the verve we've come to expect from him. In fact, the cinematic sensibility on show in Il Divo is a step up from that which Sorrentino displayed in The Consequences of Love and The Family Friend; you won't find a single mundane, predictable or obvious shot in the film. In conjunction with his brilliant cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, Sorrentino creates a series of striking compositions – replete with witty, surreal touches – and the dynamic but graceful camerawork propels the film ceaselessly forward. Sorrentino sets off at such a pace, I did start to wonder what was going to run out first – his energy or my patience for the bombastic style. But the director finds a perfect balance in the picture's tone, and just as we've finished marvelling over a glorious tracking shot through a party scene, he switches the pace, and draws us into an intimate encounter between Andreotti and his loyal wife Livia (beautifully played by Anna Bonaiuto).

Even while Sorrentino is generating a hive of activity in
Il Divo, the centre of the picture remains eerily calm. As in The Consequences of Love, Toni Servillo rivets the audience's attention in the central role by seemingly doing nothing at all. His performance is a masterpiece of understatement, refusing to show any signs of emotion beyond the odd sly smirk, and deflecting questions with his droll aphorisms. Sorrentino and Servillo have a ball playing up Andreotti's ambiguity, managing to create a character that is real and complex while also being utterly mysterious. One of the Il Divo's most startling moments comes when Andreotti abruptly breaks the fourth wall and "confesses" to the audience, become more and more animated as his monologue spills forth. It is, of course, a fantasy, and only in a fantasy sequence could this man's carefully controlled veneer crack in such a manner. Most of the time – with his hunched back, stiff gait, oddly shaped ears and grim demeanour – he resembles nothing less than Nosferatu, particularly when he, closely followed by an armed escort, takes to the deserted streets for his nightly walk.

As Andreotti stalks those streets, he is accompanied by Gabriel Fauré's
Pavane, and the repeated use of that piece of music is another of Sorrentino's masterstrokes. The director has a remarkable knack for making eclectic musical choices and weaving them into his picture in ingenious ways, and Il Divo's soundtrack runs the gamut from Vivaldi to Trio's Da Da Da, to the Morricone-style chorus of whistles which greets Andreotti's inner circle. The members of that faction are memorably characterised – Carlo Buccirosso's cunning and sprightly Pomicino, Massimo Popolizio's grinning, shark-like Sbardella – but Andreotti remains the endlessly fascinating dark heart of the picture. "I know who you are," Livia tells him when she hears about the mafia investigation, "You can't live with a man for decades and not know who he is"; but in a haunting late scene, she stares searchingly at her husband's profile as they sit in front of the TV. Does she really know who her husband is? Does anybody? Paolo Sorrentino has got as close as any filmmaker could to unravelling the nature of the beast, but Giulio Andreotti has slipped away once again.