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: