Paolo Sorrentino on 'Il Divo'

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Can a movie about a notorious Italian prime minister be exciting for a UK audience? Absolutely, says Wally Hammond, talking murder, corruption and political intrigue with Paolo Sorrentino, director of 'Il Divo'

If Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, language is inadequate to describe the chaos of Italian politics. Neither can words do justice to Italy’s most controversial and most criminally accused politician, the 25-times Christian Democrat minister and seven-times prime minister Giulio ‘Il Divo’ Andreotti.

But where words fail, cinema can triumph. Take ‘Il Divo’, the latest dynamic movie from Italian cinema’s brightest new talent, Paolo Sorrentino. He’s the 38-year-old director responsible for such arthouse hits as ‘The Consequences of Love’ and ‘The Family Friend’. In the same way that Matteo Garrone’s recent exposé, ‘Gomorrah’, caught the realities of the Neapolitan mafia, ‘Il Divo’ aims its hooks at the stinking big fish who slither through the marble palaces of power in Rome.

Sorrentino was happy to twist the knife further on a visit to London: ‘The truth is, the corruption of these people starts the minute they set foot in these stunning buildings. It makes them think they are different from who they are!’

Quite what Giulio Andreotti – arguably the most enigmatic Italian aquatic vertebrate of them all – thinks he is, is moot. ‘He’s ambiguous,’ insists Sorrentino of the still-active 90-year-old politician. He certainly is. Either through opportunism, psychological acuity or the ruthless exercise of power, this superficially retiring man – played in the film like a ‘secular cardinal’ by Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo – has proved himself a great survivor. He has occupied office almost continuously since 1946. Throughout those years, he has been arraigned and charged often – notably for his involvement in political murder and his connections to the Mafia. But nothing has stuck.

However, Sorrentino’s images stick: he employs a startling visual armoury. He demolishes his quarry from all angles, invading the hunchbacked hypochondriac’s private space and attacking the public machinations of P2 (Propaganda Due), the notorious anti-communist secret lodge. You could say Sorrentino’s film is an investigation and trial by montage. With this cinematic assault, he consciously follows the great tradition of political filmmakers such as Francesco Rosi and Elio Petri.

Il Divo’ kicks off with a bang. Or a series of them: a dismaying rock-scored collage of bodies, bullet-ridden, poisoned or hanged. Among them are journalist Mino Pecorelli, Christian Democrat president Aldo Moro and the banker Roberto Calvi.

So, who’s the guilty man? Well, check the writing on the wall. In the next scene, Servillo, playing the sinister sinner on his way to confession, plods like an undertaker past graffiti at the back of Rome’s Palazzo Chigi which shouts, ‘Massacres and conspiracies are the work of Craxi and Andreotti,’ an accusation to which Andreotti pays cursory heed.

It’s a simple scene that conveys a charged mixture of mood and meaning that pervades the film. Threatening acts co-exist with absurd, surreal detail. Which is the more frightening? The pinhead picture of migraine-afflicted Andreotti with a cranium covered in acupuncture needles or him alone with his thoughts amid a celeb party? The film paints an unusual portrait of power that is no less persuasive for combining its banal and comic aspects with its quiet, if fearsome, administration.

There’s a stream of names and events: Andreotti’s various ‘co-conspirators’, his troubled handling of the Aldo Moro kidnap and murder by the Red Brigades, his sidestepping of the Sicilian Mafia trials, his relations with senior church figures. All this may make ‘Il Divo’ sound more suited to an Italian audience. But that pitfall is avoided by Sorrentino’s equation between behaviour and its political implications. It makes his film much more accessible.

‘I was after a reflection of the nature of power in the broadest sense – not just in an Italian context,’ he explains. ‘How the origin of power is to be found in the psychology of the individual.’

Thus, alongside the political affinities with Rosi, Petri et al, ‘Il Divo’ fires connections to the psychosexual concerns of Bertolucci and others from Italian cinema of the ’60s and ’70s. Through Sorrentino’s keen awareness of filmic space, architectural context and narrative fragmentation, the film also nods to the more abstract Antonioni.

Italian cinema, after languishing in the doldrums for the past decade or so, is experiencing a reinvigoration with a bolder political agenda. Did this influence the timing of the film?

‘Not really,’ he says. ‘I’ve thought it would be a good idea to make a film about Andreotti ever since I was 18. I’ve always known film has a reach and effect that journalism does not. What finally made me make it was watching Stephen Frears’s “The Queen” two years ago. I was scared of attempting a biopic, but “The Queen” taught me it was possible to make a good one.’

Il Divo’ is a great biopic, which not only applies a stylish and absorbing new approach to political portraiture but goes some way to expressing Sorrentino’s aim of ‘assimilating the uncertainties and doubts of the Italian people’ at a crucial time in their history.

‘But remember,’ he mischievously interjects, ‘this is the noble version. The less high-minded are likely to portray the whole lot as a bunch of petty crooks.’

Il Divo’ opens on March 20 and will be reviewed next week.

Author: Wally Hammond



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