Before addressing the subject of Il Divo, the labyrinthine film about Italian political animal Giulio Andreotti, first a little about his political biography. Andreotti is one of the key members of the Christian Democrat (DC) party which dominated postwar Italian politics for over fifty years, until its spectacular collapse in the mid-1990s. During that time, he held practically every prominent position in government, most notably holding the office of Prime Minister no less than seven times, and oversaw Italy's transformation from a backward peasant country little changed from the days of Garibaldi into one of the world's leading economies.
His career has been dogged by controversy upon controversy: links to the Cosa Nostra, alleged membership in the sinister P2 Masonic Lodge, and involvement in the tangentopoli corruption scandal that eventually brought down the DC party. Most notoriously, he was Prime Minster during the so-called Anni di Piombo (Years of the Bullet), a period which saw escalating terrorist bloodshed, culminating in hard line left-wing group the Red Brigades' (BR) kidnap and eventual murder of former Prime Minister and close cohort Aldo Moro. It is widely regarded that Andreotti's decision not to negotiate with the BR was what led to Moro's death, but more significantly it is suggested that his uncompromising policies were intended to provoke more extremist factions into violence in order to isolate them politically.
It is necessary to have this knowledge before seeing Il Divo, since this is no narratively straightforward biopic in the vein of, say, Milk (2008). In fact, its complex construction and bewilderingly large cast of secondary characters make for a somewhat overwhelming first viewing. The film opens with his re-election as Prime Minister in 1992 and ends with the opening of his corruption trial, but through a combination of flashbacks, reconstructions, confessions, and interviews we see glimpses of the preceding years: suicides, assassinations, and in particular Andreotti's unshakable guilt for letting his colleague Moro die so horribly. In one of the few scenes where he lets slip genuine emotion, he questions why it was not he instead who was the one kidnapped and murdered.
If the film is an unconventional portrait in that it is non-linear in structure, then it also must be stressed that it is by no means an entirely realistic character study. Though the script is based largely in fact, from the very beginning it is clear that actor Toni Servillo is portraying him as an oddity. The opening shot is a slow zoom revealing his head to be covered in acupuncture needles, rendering him closer to Pinhead from Hellraiser (1987) than anything human, whilst much has been made of his strange folded ears which made me think of Gizmo from Gremlins (1984). He is full of strange mannerisms: curious hunched posture, an ever-present dispassionate facial expression, and his odd gliding shuffle of a walk, with various speeds including an absurd reverse gear which really needs to be seen to be comprehended. Stalking the corridors of his home in insomnia, there is a clear resemblance to Max Schreck's titular Nosferatu (1922), if crossed with Quasimodo.
In reality, he is a man respected and reviled in equal measure — viewed by some as politically astute and unflappable, but by others as emotionally detached and calculating. For such a divisive, despised figure, the film could easily have been as accusatory as Il Caimano (2006), Nanni Moretti's relentlessly unflattering portrait of Silvio Berlusconi, but Sorrentino treads a more subtle path here. The combination of the title “Il Divo” – based on one of his kinder nicknames – and a soundtrack populated by both dramatic classical and modern rock music suggests a status, perhaps ironic given his withdrawn personality, somewhere between iconic celebrity and operatic tragedy.
There is something extraordinary about a man who has survived politically for so long where all others have fallen, and despite the wealth of allegations against him has never been convicted of any of them. As La Repubblica founder Eugenio Scalfari so aptly suggests to him in one key exchange: "You're either the most cunning criminal in the country because you never got caught, or you're the most persecuted man in the history of Italy." When he further questions the 'coincidences' of his alleged involvement with criminal activity, and whether he chalks these up as being the will of God, Andreotti reminds him that his newspaper remained independent, successful, and at liberty thanks to his premiership. Il Divo is by no means an apology for Andreotti's alleged crimes, but there is the sense that if he is to be condemned, then so too is the entire history of postwar Italy.
In a film so contemplative of the relationship between good and evil, there are inevitably strong Catholic overtones of guilt and redemption. In an opening scene Andreotti, on one of his nocturnal walks – early morning rather than late night – visits his local priest who describes the difference between he and former Prime Minster and colleague Alcide De Gasperi – “in church, De Gasperi talked to God, Andreotti talked to the priest.” “Priests vote, God doesn't,” Andreotti quips back. If he is a repentant sinner, he is also a strongly Machiavellian one. Sorrentino presents him as a man aware, however misguidedly, of the what he believes to be the necessary contradiction of power: that in order to achieve aims in the best interest of the country, bad deeds must be done. This would make him a kind of Italian version of Richard Nixon, if it were not for the fact he has never publicly admitted any wrong-doing – mere wishful thinking on the director's part.
Anyone who has been in a position of power for as long as Andreotti has necessarily becomes isolated both publicly and privately, and though the film is, to an extent, a portrait of a severely flawed man, it at least understands this as an inevitability. In interviews, director Paolo Sorrentino has made reference to Stephen Frears' The Queen (2006), and this is a useful comparison, for here too we have an individual who has been ever-present in the public eye for well over half a century, and yet remains emotionally monolithic, inscrutable to the point of inhumanity. Very little is known of his private life, so what is shown here of his interactions with his wife is entirely speculative, though judging from the real-life Andreotti's reaction to seeing the film, it is not hard to infer that Sorrentino hits upon at least some home truths.
All of this would be fascinating enough to anyone with even a passing interest in Italian political history, but what gives the film a more universal appeal is the ever-exciting direction of Paolo Sorrentino. His previous films, Le Conseguenze dell'amore (2004) and L'Amico di famiglia (2006) flagged up a new director with a hugely confident, masterful control of visual style, and Il Divo might just represent its coming to full fruition. In fact, the dazzling, dizzying camerawork, breathless editing, all offset by an inventive use of scoring might just mark him out as the true successor to Martin Scorsese, whose Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) are undeniably Sorrentino's major stylistic influence here.
Praise has been heaped on Sorrentino's fellow Neapolitan director Matteo Garrone's Gomorra (2008) for its ultra-realistic portrayal of modern day organized crime, and deservedly so. But while that film exposed Italy's sinister underbelly, Il Divo is a much more profound piece of work, questioning on a much grander scale the price of political success, and meditating on the contradictions inherent in the making of political decisions. And in raising a most divisive political figure to an operatic caricature, Sorrentino's film is able to hit on human truths far beyond the reach of mere realism.