Friday, April 24, 2009

Are We Not Men?

Il Divo
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino
Starring Toni Servillo

Opens April 24, 2009

Servillo in Il Divo
Paolo Sorentino's hard-hitting Il Divo--a biopic of the slippery Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, who had a vice grip on power for 50 years as a seven-time prime minister--opens with a stunning sequence that shows the various ways so many of his enemies (judges, journalists, other politicians) just happened to meet their violent ends.

As Andreotti blithely goes on with his work, like attending church and chatting with his priest and meeting with political cronies, people are run off the road and shot, their cars are blown up, or they are hunted down and killed in cold blood. Lengthy title cards open Il Divo (one of Andreotti's nicknames, also used for Julius Caesar) to explain to non-Italian viewers this complex web of corruption--what in Italy is considered the daily business of government--and Sorrentino shows, with a raised eyebrow, that never, despite much suspicion, circumstantial evidence and trials, was Andreotti convicted of a crime.

That, of course, is a little like saying that OJ was innocent of murder. But the strength of Sorrentino's film is that, even for those who don't understand half of what's going on, viewers are caught up in the euphoric feeling that power brings. (There are too many characters for viewers to keep track of, and even the subtitles stop trying midway through the film, leaving several characters unexplained, even while Italian-language titles helpfully continue to identify them.)

Andreotti had a career like no other, even in Italy, where cronyism, corruption and the Cosa Nostra run rampant and unchecked. He was beloved by his constituents and fellow Christian Democratic party members. Most infamously, he refused to intercede with members of the Red Brigade when that extremist group kidnapped President Aldo Moro in 1978: his death was at least partly caused by Andreotti’s deliberate inaction, some say. And Sorrentino visualizes Andreotti's career as a Shakespearean tragedy--the opening sequences of murder and mayhem are echoed throughout as his behind-the-scenes machinations consolidate his grip on power, but at a tremendous human cost.

With subliminal editing and a rapidly-moving camera, the director aims to catch every substantial occurrence in Andreotti‘s long career, whether it's his losing attempt to gain enough senate votes to become president, his faithful secretary's shredding of love letters he received but never saw from adoring women around the country, or his arrogant, haughty manner during questioning and trial as the authorities tried convicting him of his Mafia ties.

Il Divo's breathless two-hour pace sometimes works against it, particularly for non-Italian viewers, who won't catch all of the political and cultural allusions that are constantly, and often casually, dropped into the narrative. But Sorrentino's sure hand includes his eclectic musical choices: orchestral music by French composers Gabriel Faure and Camille Saint-Saens, works by Finland's Jean Sibelius and original compositions by Teho Teardo.

Anchoring the film is Toni Servillo's towering performance, in which his physical transformation (squat posture, pinched voice, floppy ears, squinty eyes), remarkable as it is, only underscores the man‘s personality. Servillo goes far beyond mere caricature, and --especially in the periodic refrain of Andreotti taking a lone walk through the streets of Rome, accompanied by machine-gunned body guards--even makes him sympathetic, a not inconsiderable achievement for this actor and his director.

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