I have enough trouble following the details of my own country’s political intrigue, so the material in “Il Divo” — about Italy’s notorious seven-time prime minister Giulio Andreotti — was almost entirely new to me. The film begins with a dizzying stream of names and events, too, which would be a daunting history lesson if the writer/director, Paolo Sorrentino, didn’t present it with such style. Even with no knowledge of Italian government, you can enjoy this hip, un-stodgy, grimly entertaining dissection of it, and of one of its most infamous modern figures.
The film begins with a quote about Andreotti to the effect that if you don’t have anything nice to say about someone, don’t say anything at all. The source of the quote is Andreotti’s mother. We learn (or are reminded, if we’re savvy about world politics) that Andreotti’s nicknames include the Hunchback, the Black Pope, and, getting right to the point, Beelzebub. His political enemies have a habit of “committing suicide.” When former prime minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped by leftist extremists in 1978, Andreotti (his successor) refused to negotiate despite pleas from the pope himself to do so. When the abductors murdered Moro, some blamed Andreotti.
“Il Divo” suggests that Andreotti may have blamed himself, too, as Moro (played by Paolo Graziosi) indicts him in his imagination from beyond the grave. But Andreotti has heavier things on his mind. Played with great control and precision by Toni Servillo, Andreotti suffers from occasional migraines but behaves as if they are continual. His shoulders are stiff, his face pinched and unamused. Sorrentino nearly always photographs him looking directly at the camera or in exact profile. He could be posing for a police mugshot, facing an interrogator, or appearing on a coin. (One can imagine Andreotti doing all of those things, possibly on the same day.)
The film is largely set in the early 1990s, near the end of his last tenure as prime minister, when he is hoping to be voted president. His inner circle of advisers (who have nicknames like “the Shark”) include people directly connected to both the Mafia and the Vatican. Andreotti is almost certainly corrupt and unprincipled, yet he derives no pleasure from it. He doesn’t frolic with buxom young women or spend millions on yachts. He’s in it solely for the power, though he doesn’t seem to “enjoy” that, either. He has the demeanor of a man who has never enjoyed anything, in fact, except in a few rare, gentle moments with his wife, Livia (Anna Bonaiuto), whom he genuinely loves. He also has a soft spot for Ms. Enea (Piera Degli Esposti), his elderly, devoted secretary and perhaps the only person in the world who can tell him what to do.
Sorrentino, who was 37 when he made the film, has the fresh energy of a much younger director but the discipline of someone wiser and more experienced. He knows how to enliven the more mundane aspects of the political process without overdoing it. He has also, it’s worth noting, seen the “Godfather” trilogy a time or five, and has let its qualities — its grand scope, its use of classical music — color his vision in the most positive ways. Influences aside, however, Sorrentino is no copycat. His knack for composing eye-catching shots and his ear for the right techno-pop to mix with the classical selections mark him as unique.
Toni Servillo is 50 years old and bears no resemblance to Andreotti in real life. In the film, he looks 70 and is a dead ringer for the Hunchback. I can’t verify that he’s got the mannerisms and speech patterns down (though I accept the word of those familiar with Andreotti that he has), but I can confirm that, accurate or not, his portrayal of Andreotti is magnetic. Sorrentino tends to put Servillo right in the middle of the frame, but we’d want to look at him anyway. He’s an utterly captivating figure, fascinating to watch even in quiet moments, culminating in an astonishing monologue near the end — the only time Andreotti ever raises his voice — where he insists that whatever “bad” things he has done have been for the ultimate good of the country. “We must love God greatly to understand how necessary evil is for good,” he says. “God knows it, and I know it.”
Andreotti is presented as a comical, sad figure, fearsome in his power and cunning yet ultimately pathetic, too. He is no monster. He seems to earnestly believe what he says about the ends justifying the means, and to accept the weight of his misdeeds upon his hunched, narrow shoulders. Sorrentino and Servillo have made an outstanding film, not a hit piece but a portrait (albeit a damning one) of a strange, singular figure in Italian politics. The real Andreotti probably won’t be a fan, but that needn’t stop the rest of us.
A (1 hr., 50 min.; Italian with subtitles; )