Sunday, November 22, 2009

Il Divo

The opening text scroll of Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo, ostensibly a biopic of seven-time Prime Minister of Italy Giulio Andreotti, is a fantastic piece of misdirection. It creates the sort of severe, faux-tense mood we're accustomed to with the life story of the seedy and infamous. Then the director pulls the rug out from under us: Il Divo is, above all else, a riotous black comedy. Oh sure, it tackles serious themes such as corruption and the skewed justice system, but the joy of watching this off-beat biopic comes from how much it ignores the rigidity of the genre.

Imagine the last five minutes of The Godfather and expand them to two hours, and you've got the basic conceit of Il Divo. After a brief and inventive montage of Andreotti's political enemies through the decades meeting their ends, Sorrentino properly opens on the minister on the eve of the start of his seventh term. His unofficial cabinet looks more like an entourage, PR agents and the über-wealthy. Even a fellow politician, Paolo Cirino Pomicino, acts more like a lackey than a respected member of the Christian Democratic Party: sent ahead of his boss like a herald, Pomicino uses fast-talking and coercion to win over potential dissidents within the party. Andreotti does not seem to need real advisers, only people who have the money or the skill to bury something. They've been accompanying Andreotti for so long that they handle potential scandals as trifles; in their jovial presence Italy's governmental buildings seem more like country clubs than executive and legislative landmarks.

They represent a toxic corruption of postwar Italian politics, yet they are but child's play compared to the ringleader. Andreotti is nothing if not fascinating, a gnomic, slouching collection of flesh without an iota of charisma who has somehow managed to sit uninterrupted in some position of Italy's parliament since 1946. He never became president though, as he tells us in the film, only because Italy does not decide that position by direct election. He said a few choice quotes that toe the line between wit and sinister intent, but my favorite would have to be what he reportedly once said to the Pope: "Excuse me, Your Holiness, but you don’t know the Vatican.”

His legend shall only deepen with this film, thanks to a commanding performance by Toni Servillo. In recent years, the United States has reshaped Richard Nixon into a Shakespearean character as the incessant biopics of the 37th president have wrung every ounce of tragedy from the man's life. But if we at last break down and accept Nixon as such, then Servillo's portrayal of Andreotti plays like the evolutionary missing link joining Nixon to Richard III (he also, at times, looks uncomfortably like the vampire of Murnau's Nosferatu). Though he slouches and looks down all the time, at no point does Servillo project an aura of sloth; no, he appears to slouch to present less of a target, some preternatural instinct of self-preservation heightened greatly by a lifetime of skulduggery. He knows what people think of him, because he's too busying planning about more important matters to care. "I have something else too," he tells us in a voiceover: "A vast archive in place of an imagination. Every time I mention it, those who should shut up do so, as if by magic."

Like the best villains, including Michael Corleone, his most obvious cinematic antecedent, Andreotti is too interesting to hate and too twisted to root for. Some of his alleged actions give him pause, but that doesn't stop him from planning the next chess move. So controlling and manipulative is he that his narration can shift the film itself. In the film's most brilliant scene, Andreotti fantasizes about confessing his sins to his wife: and the revelation of the raging torrent of the minister's inner thoughts contained behind that blank slate of an outer façade places Servillo's performance in frightening and astounding context.

It must be said, however, that Italian politics are confusing as hell. I don't know a thing about them, and I suspect the majority of you don't as well. This results in the film's biggest, for lack of a better term, flaw: made by Italians for Italians, Il Divo assumes its large chunks of background as read, thus leaving American audiences with the task not only keeping track with the seemingly endless list of names that pop up on the screen every few minutes but knowing why those names are important without being given any information. As Andreotti is still alive, which makes the film a fairly bold move on Sorrentino's part, one might assume that Italians know all of the backstory, even that many remember some of all of it.

It's unfair to single out this aspect of the film as a weakness, as I never have to judge an American film based on how I think it will play outside the States. Still, Sorrentino's madcap, pulp vision of Andreotti's life, at times the film's biggest stylistic strength, wore me down with its deluge of unexplained events, to the point that I started to drift near the end, brought back only by Servillo's intoxicating, spellbinding performance. If my overall rating seems low compared to my written thoughts on the film, it is, but I couldn't help but feel that the utter lack of context for so much of the film distracted me too often from the dizzy fun of its merciless deadpan comedy. At the end of the day, though, eff the rating: everyone should watch this film, both to see Michael Corleone's life as a comedy and for the sublime work Servillo contributes, the finest I've seen all year.

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