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Il Divo, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year and has recently been released in US movie houses, is a devastatingly ironic and highly stylized portrait of the strange, extraordinarily powerful and long-lived Italian politician Giulio Andreotti. He has been in Italian government in some office or other since the late 1940's. After slipping out of repeated convictions for Mafia ties in the past decade he remains "senator for life" at the age of 90, and he's been credited with helping bring down governments even quite recently.
The ultimate political survivor, Andreotti was seven times prime minister from 1972 to 1992. He's had a seat in the Italian parliament without interruption since 1946, and has also been Defense Minister, Foreign Minister, and President. In Andreotti's own view (though he walked out on the film) his wife of 60 years Livia (Anna Bonaiuto) and his long-serving secretary Vincenza Enea (Piera Degli Esposti), are both sympathetically portrayed in Il Divo. He really didn't like being shown kissing Mafia boss Toto Riina, which he has said never happened. In the film, Andreotti is most haunted by the Red Brigades' murder of the kidnapped of Aldo Moro, which he might have prevented.
Though Sorrentino's film is in some ways a detailed chronicle of Anreotti's 60-plus years of political power and dubious dealings, with a focus on the seventh government and its aftermath, the film seems more an exercise in style than an impassioned study of politics. The self-consciousness of its frequent uses of loud contrasting music, ceremonial, almost Kabuuki-like set pieces, and slow-motion to muffle scenes of violence are further underlined by the performance of Toni Servillo, who accurately, perhaps too accuately, mimics Andreotti's look, his hunched posture, even his oddly turned-down ears, and his puppet-like mannerisms. Staring forward, neck rigid, he keeps his arms close to his body and his hands turned inward and peers expressionlessly out of his big eyeglasses. He walks across the floor in quick tiny steps like some 18th-century Japanese court lady. There is no attempt by director or principal actor to charm or to involve. It seems Sorrentino, with Servillo's diligent collaboration, is laughing not only at Andreotti and at Italian politics, but at us.
Il Divo is soulless and cynical, but it is so stylish that it's bound to be remembered. It's some kind of ultimate statement of the essence of the slick, heavily-guarded world of Italian political corruption. In its own special, magisterially mean-spirited and pessimistic way it's an instant classic.
In this film, Andreotti, who has been referred to as "Il divo Giulio" ("The God Giulio," referencing the Roman Empire's deification of Julius Caesar), and by monikers like "Beelzebub," "The Fox," "The Black Pope," "The Prince of Darkness," and "The Hunchback," is a queer, nerdy, mummified-looking creature who hardly ever changes expression or cracks a smile. His rigid gestures and the odd commentary of his group of primary supporters, themselves all provided with gangster-style nicknames, lead to a series of scenes that suggest politics as caricatural facade, as almost pure ritual, with time out on occasion for jokes, self-pity, and cruelty to others. You won't hear constituents mentioned in this movie, though when somebody says another politician prays to God but he prays to the priest, Andreotti answers: "Priests vote. God doesn't." Politics is everything to him, and politics means the pursuit of power.
For a non-Italian the details of various moments from the Aldo Moro kidnapping and all the terrorism of the Brigate Rosse of the 1970's to the 1990 Mafia trials may be pretty confusing. It's not that the filmmakers don't care; they're primarily talking to an Italian audience. But even for such an audience, they're keeping an ironic distance.
The facade never cracks. In one scene, typically staring straight forward, Andreotti delivers an impassioned speech of self-defense, raising his voice almost to a shout at the end, but without moving a muscle of his face. Servillo is a noted man of the theater in Italy and his whole performance is a chilly tour de force that inspires awe without giving much pleasure. Andreotti in this soliloquy--which highlights the film's often solipsistic feel--argues that a leader must manipulate evil in order to maintain good. This may fit in with the evidence that he collaborated with the Mafia, and yet at times was severe in repressing it.
In life as in this film Andreotti has compensated for what may be the lack of visible humanity by being a wit, and Il Divo crams as many of the famous battute or one-lineers into scenes as it can. One was "the trouble with the Pope is that he doesn't know the Vatican." Another: "They blame me for everything, except the Punic wars." "Signor Andreotti, how do you keep your conscience clean?" he was once asked. "I never use it," he replied. Other bons mots among many: "The trouble with the Red Brigades is they're too serious," and "Power is fatiguing only to those who don't have it." The world of Italian politics is baffling to the outsider. Andreotti's cool detachment and wit and this film's stylized cynicism may be the best approach to its deviousness and complexity.
Last year Servillo also played one of the main characters in Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah, where he's an out-and-out Mafia functionary. Gomorrah won Cannes' number-two award (just below the Golden Palm) the Grand Prize, last year, which given Il Divo's Jury Prize prompted declarations of a rebirth of Italian cinema in the making. Non-Italians like Mafia movies; Italians are sick of them, and might have wished for patriotic reasons that their best filmmakers had won applause by turning to some other subject matter. Both these films are cold, detached, and analytical. Maybe they mean Italians are getting serious about their own film industry and want to look the country's ugliest aspects right in the eye. But don't look for hope here. A great cinema requires more humanity than this.
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