Il Divo Sorrentino

A biopic about an Italian politician! What could be more boring. Why would anybody go to see that.

Well, I went the other week to see Paolo Sorrentino’s wonderful Il Divo, and have been trying to find the energy to write something about it ever since. I am just here to tell you I do not have the energy. But it is absolutely everything a movie should be: tense, taut, gripping, poetic, sublime, technically dazzling, outrageously well written (you can tell that even with the subtitles), funny, chilling, witty, sad, dark, weird, full of mystery and also of clarity. It really is poetic, too, in its ability to conjure depth, complication, conflicting tones, sudden revelation out of pictures and light and music. Absolutely stupendous camera work: so many times we just thought – how did he do that – edge of seat stuff, and because of an effect. But which one?

I would deeply love to describe it to you but that is not possible. It is both very violent and very beautiful in its depiction of evil.

The film is a biopic of Giulio Andreotti, the seven-times Italian Prime Minister of my childhood, who ended up on trial for Mafia involvement – or was he subpoenaed in other people’s trials? It’s hard to say which, because – as even the Times admitted – if you are not Italian already you have not one hope in hell of following the labyrinthine twists of event. And the film is dazzlingly expressionist, which makes it hard to know sometimes – and you don’t always know till afterwards that you didn’t know – whether what you see on the screen is real, or whether it’s somebody’s point of view – possibly Andreotti’s, or possibly something somebody trumped up against him. (Only  it turns out nobody trumped up anything against him. They didn’t have to. You couldn’t have made it up.) Sorrentino brilliantly lays all these layers out.

Then again, the filmmaker is by his own admission not without a spark of admiration for the cunning one. As he says, Andreotti at least had some style, which Berlusconi signally lacks (though this is the fatal failing of the Mafia movie, of which this, is, in the end, one). (And the film very stylishly begs the question of whether it ultimately makes any difference.) Several of the best lines are original to Andreotti, who had a dry, incisive wit. The film is full of visual wit, of which there is much in the clip above. The best kind of wit: sad wit.


Almost a dream sequence. Almost Greenaway-esque, but with a (surprise) very funny mozzarella. This scene is the one where Andreotti says affectlessly of his own power: “I know I’m an average man, but looking around I don’t see any giants”. (This is a part of his immense cunning: he repeats the protestations of is own mediocrity throughout the film, but the guy is about as mediocre, especially in this amazing performance, as the original “Il Divo Giulio” Caesar.)

The film is heavy with Baroque. Visually this means mainly interiors, with heavy carvings overshadowing the action (literally) and ornate angels looking over the shoulders of the miscreants…  but of course it is a state of mind. The exteriors, as above, are filmed like interiors: another device that renders point of view complicated. The Medici are everywhere. As so they might be. Also everywhere are the ghosts of Scorsese and Nixon and the Sopranos team… The shocking opening sequence owes everything to Goodfellas. The performances are just profligately good, especially Toni Servillo as Andreotti, who just takes the thing to giddying heights of, if I may, subtlety. (Some line. I told you I didn’t have the energy.) I mean he is great.

Andreotti is now, at 91, a senator for life. The power he had, and still has, is evident in this snippet from CNN:

Something of the man’s influence in all spheres of Italian public life becomes clear when Sorrentino — who says he is not a political director, “only in this case” — explains how hard he found it to fund the film.

“In Italy nobody wanted to finance the film because everybody was scared,” Sorrentino told CNN. “He has been a very powerful man for many years.”

Sorrentino managed eventually to secure funding from a private source.

“It is not easy for Italian companies to put money in this project, so we did it with the private money of very courageous individuals,” he said.

“I have always wanted to make a film about Andreotti,” says Sorrentino. “He is so psychologically complex that everyone has been intrigued by him over the years.

“It’s a political film but at the same time a film about a complex character from a psychological point of view.”

The music is as eclectic and sublime as in the first few series of The Sopranos. Lots of Sibelius, mixed with techno, rock, Baroque music, and even surprising things like Beth Orton (!). And the ending – this is something the Sopranos people really understood how to use, the perfect musical finale. I was weeping with joy as the titles came up. My all-time favourite song. (Oh, and n.b.: the video is weirdly silent for 25 seconds, which completely ruins the surprise of the opening. Worth sticking with for the complete eighties silliness.) The perfection of mood was such that as soon as I heard the telltale beginning it became retroactively inevitable.

Afterward I felt as if I’d been watching something about, say, Nixon or Kissinger. (In fact, I think someone should do this kind of film on Kissinger. Not Nixon. Even though a movie about Kissinger would be too horrific and just queasemaking to watch, probably.) And when I got home and googled Andreotti (I am determined to brush up my Shakespeare a bit and see this again) the first picture I saw was this:


Ha! Oh, God. Gibberish. I need to stop writing this now. Anyway, it had to be done. Today I had a Girls’ Afternoon Out to see Vicky Christina Barcelona – the Sunday afternoon movies at the Rio, I love my local cinema – and it was cute, very cute indeed. Woody Allen meets Almodovar (Almodovar is better), with Penelope Cruz blowing the rest of them off the screen. We laughed, we liked it, we had fun. But it was no Il Divo.

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