Cracking an enigma: that’s the mission that Italian director Paolo Sorrentino sets himself with his third film, a slick but never superficial portrait of the much accused, never convicted Italian politician Giuilio Andreotti. He served as a Christian Democrat prime minister seven times from the 1970s to the ’90s and his career hit its crucifixion and resurrection in the late 1990s and early 2000s when he was tried both for having connections to the Mafia and for instigating the murder of a journalist. He was judged guilty of the latter but had his conviction overturned on appeal. Now 90, he remains in the Italian senate.
It’s safe to say that Sorrentino doesn’t side with his country’s judicial system: his stunning film, which couldn’t be less of a traditional biopic if it tried, with its unsettling clash of the classical and the modern, from the music (Vivaldi, Trio) to the mise-en-scène (Antonioni meets car adverts), squarely places Andreotti in the centre of a sinister network of politics, business, religion and crime. An opening montage of violent deaths, including ‘God’s banker’ Roberto Calvi hanging from Blackfriars Bridge, speaks volumes about the film’s attitude to its subject. The first half is a speedy onslaught of episodes in Andreotti’s later life that culminates in a barrage of accusations – surely the film’s conscience – from a journalist. The second half slows down slightly and tightens its focus on the approach to his trial, the endless flashbulbs in his face a sinister contrast with a demeanour that couldn’t be less suggestive of celebrity.
Actor Toni Servillo, the lead in Sorrentino’s first film, ‘The Consequences of Love’ (2004), plays Andreotti as a walking corpse, a shuffling, silent, migraine-afflicted mystery. He’s surrounded by the more colourful members of his ‘faction’ and carries the physical awkwardness of a schoolboy. He’s almost a caricature with his gargoyle ears, his hunched back and his deathly movements – he glides like a Hoover in slo-mo. But there’s enough compassion to make this more than a cartoon: indeed, there’s enough in one scene in which Andreotti watches a crooner on television with his wife. Briefly we see behind the mask of his public persona.
Unless you’re closely acquainted with Italian politics, it’s unlikely that the onslaught of names and allusions to politicians, the Mafia, P2 (the anti-communist Masonic lodge) and the business world will entirely compute. But that doesn’t matter: Sorrentino’s skill is to tell his story almost entirely visually. The telling is breathtaking, a showy, musical dance that somehow bombards you with facts but limits dialogue to a minimum. Sorrentino surprises with every new shot, camera move, juxtaposition, snippet of humour and dollop of dread. As character assassination, it’s delicious and deadly.