With Il Divo, the Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino (The Consequences of Love, The Family Friend) has spectacularly reinvented the genre of the political biopic. The subject of this darkly amusing and often exhilarating film is the nonagenarian Giulio Andreotti, one of the great survivors of Italian politics, who became his country’s prime minister on seven occasions between 1972 and 1992, and who was memorably described by Mrs Thatcher as having a ‘positive aversion to principle’.
Sorrentino wisely concentrates on a few crucial years in Andeotti’s career, beginning with the formation of his last administration in 1991, continuing through the ‘Tangentopoli’ bribery scandals which swept away his Christian Democrat party, and incorporating the numerous accusations of his collusion with the Mafia in the much earlier murders of journalist Mino Pecorelli and the police chief Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa.
For those not versed in the labyrinthine details of Italian politics, Il Divo might seem a foreboding prospect, yet the incident-packed drama is anchored by Toni Servillo’s minimalist central performance. His migraine-plagued Andreotti is a physically unprepossessing figure, who seems to scuttle through the corridors of power and down Rome’s deserted nocturnal streets. His pallid features rarely express emotions, and he uses quotations and jokes to avoid revealing his own feelings. Occasionally however, this mask of impenetrability slips — Sorrentino reveals how he is haunted by guilty memories of Aldo Moro, his political colleague who was abducted and murdered by the Red Brigades in 1978 after Andreotti had refused to negotiate with the terrorists. And in a chilling monologue the devoutly Christian politician defends the controversial ‘strategy of tension’ by insisting that, ‘one needs to be evil to defend what’s good.’
One of Sorrentino’s great strengths is his ability, assisted by his regular cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, to conjure up dream-like universes, and Il Divo doesn’t disappoint with its dynamic tracking shots, its theatrical lighting and its compositions in which individuals are dwarfed by the surrounding architecture. Like Citizen Kane, and more recently, There Will Be Blood, Il Divo respects the fundamental unknowability of its protagonist: the ‘real’ Andreotti remains a mystery.
GFT, Glasgow and Cameo, Edinburgh, Fri 20 Mar.