Monday, November 9, 2009

IL DIVO (2008)

Maybe it was only because star Tony Servillo had appeared in Gomorra, but I had the impression that Paolo Sorrentino's political drama was being promoted in the U.S. as a kind of follow-up to Matteo Garrone's chronicle of modern Italian crime. There's definitely a crime angle here, as Giulio Andreotti, the longtime power broker of Italy's Christian Democratic party, has been alleged to have had strong Mafia ties during his long career. But this is not a crime film, though Sorrentino sort of gives us a square-up reel right at the start, a montage of infamous assassinations of politicians, journalists and other notable men. The main action of the film isn't nearly so sensational.

Nor is Il Divo a biopic about Andreotti, who remains in politics today at age 90, having withstood all the charges against him. A major stumbling block for non-Italian audiences is that Andreotti and his cronies are pretty much taken for granted. We don't see where they came from, and we have only the vaguest idea what they stand for, despite a helpful introductory text in the American edition. The movie is really just an extended episode in Andreotti's life, starting with the formation of his unprecedented seventh government as prime minister in 1989 but flashing back occasionally to earlier events, most notably the politician's questionable role during the Aldo Moro kidnapping of 1978. Il Divo takes him from arguably the peak of his prestige to a slow-motion humiliation as his system of "perpetuating evil to guarantee good" falls apart in the face of growing public outrage over corruption and mafia violence and he's finally forced to answer charges of "mandating" assassinations himself.

Giulio Andreotti (Tony Servillo, center) is the toast of Italy at the start of Il Divo.

The blurbs on the new DVD invite comparisons to Coppola and Scorsese's films, but it mainly reminded me of the movies Peter Morgan has written about Tony Blair. It's an attempt to probe for the essence of a personality everyone thinks they know to some extent, and a better American analogy would be with Oliver Stone's presidential pictures, Nixon and W. Il Divo portrays Andreotti as a figure of Nixonian awkwardness, but without Nixon's motivating anger and anxiety. Non-Italian audiences are left wondering what makes him tick.

Il Divo doesn't really try to see things through Andreotti's eyes, but there are exceptions.

We get few clues, one being that Andreotti rose from a humble background. The big revelation is meant to come in a scene in which Andreotti rehearses a confession speech that he'll never actually give. In this speech (which strangely reminded me of Jean-Claude Van Damme's cri de coeur in JCVD), Servillo raises his voice for the only time in the picture to defend his accommodation of corruption, telling the audience that "We can't allow the end of the world in the name of what's right...We have a divine mandate to understand how necessary evil is for good." But we get little sense of what "good" means for Andreotti. He has no big dreams or schemes that we know of on the evidence of this film. The one issue he seems insistent on is making sure that Tedax, a favorite drug of his, isn't removed from the pharmaceutical codex. Does he use it and benefit? Does he hold stock in the manufacturer? Italians may know, but global audiences won't.

In a way, comparing Il Divo with Scorsese's work is fair. Sorrentino's film is like Goodfellas and Casino, not in its violence, but in its portrayal of a corrupt empire as a system that worked for those who worked it. But Il Divo lacks the tragic power of those American films because it doesn't show the system crumbling from within, but buckling under assault from without, from an outraged populace whose story isn't told here. The Italian film is more like Scorsese's The Aviator in its attempt to punch up a dry succession of episodes with cinematic pyrotechnics, not to mention semi-surreal incidents like the rolling of a rogue skateboard through the literal corridors of power. It's also Scorsesean in its reliance on a soundtrack rather than a full score. Teho Teardo contributes some original music, but the most memorable musical moments of Il Divo mostly come from other sources. I found that a disappointing betrayal of the great tradition of Italian movie music, but why should the Italians be different from filmmakers of other lands in this regard?

Now that I've suggested that Paolo Sorrentino indulges in visual gimmickry, I should say that Il Divo is a lavish looking movie. Sorrentino had the run of all the halls of government, it seems, and he makes the most of them to give the film an effortlessly epic appearance. The DVD includes an "FX Reel," but the biggest special effect in the film is Toni Servillo and his make-up job. Sorrentino apparently aimed for a total transformation of actor into politician, instead of Stone's middle-way approach with Anthony Hopkins as Nixon. Servillo gives a very stylized performance in presumably exact imitation of Andreotti's mannerisms, but I feel as if I can't judge his work until I see more of the real Andreotti. There's something mysterious about his performance, but because I don't know the real man, I'm not sure what mystery he's trying to solve.

Il Divo functions on the realistically bloated scale of modern politics, from the massive Italian legislature (above) to the heavy escort Andreotti (center background, below) needs when he goes out for nocturnal walks.

Il Divo simply isn't as accessible as Gomorra, and sending it out into the world in Gomorra's wake may have been a mistake. I don't mean to say that a political biopic is automatically unfit for foreign consumption, but remember, Il Divo isn't a biopic. Had Sorrentino really sought a global audience, he might have made one. As it is, his movie is one that people will probably appreciate better the more they know about Italian politics, or it might well improve on subsequent viewings once global audiences overcome their "Huh?" reflex. Does imposing preconditions on appreciation make this a lesser film? Not for Italians, obviously, but that still leaves us asking whether a truly great film would be accessible to moviegoers everywhere without preconditions. It's a question worth pondering for all citizens of the wild world of cinema.

Here's the deceptively action-packed official American trailer, uploaded by MPIHomeVideo:

And for the sake of comparison, here's a brief clip of Andreotti himself, uploaded to YouTube by EXTRAVAGLIOO999:


Kevin J. Olson said...

Interesting, Samuel. I have yet to see Gammorah, but I plan to rectify that soon. I'm interested in this one, too, but I have to be honest...when I saw the title of the movie I thought you were reviewing a movie about the band that the dude from American Idol put together. Anyway...great review. My interest is piqued!

Dave said...

Very interesting indeed... and this one is available to watching instantly on Netflix, and since I am now able to stream these through my PS3, I'll try and check it out. As I've mentioned many times on my blog, I have an obsessive fascination with organized crime and have recently been reading lot of on the 80s-90s in Sicily and Italy. The evidence ties between Andreotti and the Corleonesi clan seems very strong, so it is an incredibly fascinating topic.

I'd love to see you review Gomorrah at some point (unless you have already and I missed, which is possible). Roberto Saviano's book is spectacular and is held up as THE volume on the Camorra. But I was disappointed by the film, honestly. It felt much too episodic and disconnected for me.

Sam Juliano said...

"In a way, comparing Il Divo with Scorsese's work is fair. Sorrentino's film is like Goodfellas and Casino, not in its violence, but in its portrayal of a corrupt empire as a system that worked for those who worked it. But Il Divo lacks the tragic power of those American films because it doesn't show the system crumbling from within, but buckling under assault from without, from an outraged populace whose story isn't told here. The Italian film is more like Scorsese's THE AVIATOR......"

Brilliant propositions here Samuel. I do agree, though to be honest I much preferred IL DIVO (which I saw in a Manhattan movie theatre earlier this year and gave a 4/5 star rating to) to GOMORRAH, which was overlong, convoluted, tedious and redundant, which the film about Andreotti is more focused, if enigmatic. But the latter quality is inherent in this fascinating, cryptic character who was played here to the hilt by Tony Servillo, who seemingly is always photographed by Sorentino looking at the camera in profile). The Aldo Moro affair was well-presented in a dramatic sense, but Sorrentino succeeds mostly in presnting a man who has had little real happiness in his life, a man simultaneously sad and fearsome, yet cunning and with an uncanny ability to wriggle his way out of anything. He isn't reprehensible, as he believes what he is doing, while still willing to accept the consequences of his deeds.

I'l have to secure the DVD soon enough.

Sam Juliano said...

Ah, I just read now that Dave didn't care for GOMORRAH either.

Samuel Wilson said...

I reviewed Gomorra when it hit the local art house back in April. It worked for me as an accumulation of detail that was probably meant to be overwhelming but could just as easily strike some viewers as merely fatiguing. One reservation I had about it at the time was that it seemed a little like just another film in a global crime genre, and I'll take Dave's word for it that the movie didn't do justice to the book. As for comparing it to Il Divo, let's allow that accessibility and quality are two different things. Gomorra is more accessible to global audiences almost by default, while Divo really seems to require special knowledge to be appreciated fully. Sorrentino may have tried to answer questions about Andreotti, but his film left me asking them -- which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The general viewer may walk away with some idea about the banality of power, if not evil, but the Italiam viewer probably gets a good deal more from it. I wonder which of the two films Italians prefer.

Anonymous said...

Andreotti became the main man of Democrazia Cristiana more or less during Moro's kidnapping affair, and, once upon a time, as a young minister of entertainment and arts, he was considered "the beautiful one" in this party, wich reigned on Italy from just after WWII up to 1992, when "Mani Pulite" inquiry destroied it...
This man's main characteristic, for us Italians, was just the ambiguous, indecipherable and impenetrable mask he was always wearing: the successions of names Servillo's voice tells at the beginning, when added to the wife's delusional little speach at the kitchen table later, give the frame of the empty picture Andreotti has made of himself.
BTW, the conclusion of the main trial on Andreotti concluded by sanctioning he was involved with Mafia up to 1981 (acquitted by exceeding the prescription time), and gave an "insufficient evidence" justification not to convict him for the subsequent years (thanks to some ad-hoc laws approved, during the very long trial, by Italian Parliament, with which the concept of cotinuative crime was abolished from Italian Penal Code, making proves for the later years indeed "not sufficient").