To listen to what is not said is often as informative as hearing what is. Absence can reveal as much as presence, the opaque more than the clear. It is this idea, brilliantly conveyed, that runs through the performance that dominates Il Divo, transforming this bravura, epic, and wildly imaginative new film by the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (released last year in Italy, it opens at selected U.S. venues this weekend) from the merely great into something very close to a masterpiece.
An acerbic, allusive depiction of Giulio Andreotti (born 1919), the acerbic, elusive statesman who served seven times as Italy’s prime minister between 1972 and 1992, and who was for decades its most powerful politician, Il Divo is not a movie with obvious appeal to a wide American audience. It monkeys with time, reality, and genre, jumping to and fro between decades, between fact and fiction, between comedy, tragedy, satire, and philippic. The events it purports to describe are little known over here. The political figures that prowl through its lethal funhouse narrative will be unfamiliar and, in their urbane cynicism and sardonic Realpolitik, almost indistinguishable from one another. Was that Franco Evangelisti we just saw, or Salvo Lima? Does it matter?
If it’s any consolation, Italians also struggle to understand their country’s post-war political history. It’s a half-century-long saga of cabals, conspiracy, and faction, of collusion with organized crime, of governments that fell but never changed, of guilty verdicts that were not, of murky Masonic lodges and devious Vatican bankers, and, always, the fear that the country’s deep ideological divisions would ultimately lead to violent conflict. Finally, hideously and, except to the dead, ambiguously, they did. The “years of lead” between the late 1960s and the early 1980s were the years of the Red Brigades, of fascist bombings, of a Mafia that appeared ready to take on the state, but also of a growing suspicion that much of this was the result of a deliberately engineered “strategy of tension” designed to whip up support for a more openly authoritarian regime. It’s no surprise that Italians have a word, dietrologia (“the science of what’s behind”), to describe the quest to discover who is really responsible for what goes on in that country of theirs. Up until recently, the answer, more often than not, or so it is repeatedly claimed, was Andreotti.
Paranoia? To a degree, but amongst the members of the faction that Andreotti led within Italy’s Christian Democratic party, and who feature in Il Divo, Salvo Lima used his connections to la Cosa Nostra to deliver large numbers of crucial Sicilian votes (he was eventually murdered by the Mafia in a response to government moves against it), Franco Evangelisti was a self-confessed recipient of large amounts of illicit campaign-finance “contributions,” Paolo Pomicino was convicted for his role in a major bribery scandal (naturally he still sits in parliament, where he has served as a member of the commission responsible for investigating organized crime), and Giuseppe Ciarrapico was found guilty of involvement in the same Banco Ambrosiano affair that saw the bank’s chairman “suicided” from London’s Blackfriars Bridge. Ciarrapico became a senator in 2008. Under these circumstances, does it matter who exactly is who?
As for another Christian Democrat leader, Aldo Moro, a former prime minister, who haunts this film and, it implies, what’s left of Andreotti’s conscience, he ended up broken, “tried” and murdered by the Red Brigades in 1978 after a kidnapping in which efforts to rescue him may have been hampered by the same establishment of which he once believed himself to be an indispensable part.
Then there’s Mino Pecorelli, a prominent muckraking journalist with a sideline in blackmail. He’s gunned down at the beginning of the movie. Back in what passes for real life, he was reported to have had damaging information about Andreotti, information that may have proved fatal — though not to Andreotti. In 1999 Andreotti was tried for his alleged involvement in Pecorelli’s murder and acquitted, only to be found guilty by a court of appeal in 2002, a verdict that was itself overturned the following year. Andreotti continues to be a senator-for-life. Pecorelli continues to be dead.
Pecorelli’s is just one of many violent deaths to punctuate this movie. The most striking is that of Salvo Lima. Filmed in a cleverly cross-cut sequence strikingly reminiscent of the murderous finale to The Godfather, Part II, it is just one of several nods to Coppola’s trilogy (which featured, incidentally, a character thought to be partly based on Andreotti). In another scene we watch Andreotti handing out small gifts to some of his humbler constituents. It’s impossible not to remember Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone dispensing a favor here and a favor there, and, if you’re me, to be struck by the similarities between the patronage state and a successful criminal enterprise.
But compared with Andreotti, Brando’s Godfather is a mumbling, incoherent lout. As depicted by Sorrentino’s biting, perversely witty, slyly winking script and Toni Servillo’s extraordinary (and in the view of many, remarkably accurate) performance, the reserved, melancholy Italian prime minister is a black hole, enigmatic, all-consuming and irresistible, his nature illuminated only by tiny inflections of his hunched, tightly held-in body and flashes of bleak, knowing humor. He’s devoutly religious (famously so), but we soon come to realize that he has embraced the idea of a fallen humanity so fully that it has become for him both inspiration and alibi.
Servillo’s soft-spoken, deadpan Andreotti makes the screen his own. Even if you have no interest in this film’s subject matter, go for Servillo, a maestro depicting a master with a subtlety and intensity that defy description. At times he seems almost inhuman, his narrow frame and bat-ears hinting at Max Schreck’s Nosferatu, particularly in a sequence in which he practically glides down the corridors of power, corridors that, Italy being Italy, are as architecturally glorious as they are politically treacherous. Its story of murder, corruption, and betrayal may be ugly, but Il Divo is frequently gorgeous to look at. It’s a contrast that reinforces the message that Sorrentino is trying to deliver. This is underscored by scene after scene shot in that perfect chiaroscuro where light and darkness play off each other with neither quite prevailing. Even the times when Andreotti walks slowly and stiffly down a quiet Roman street, completely, hauntingly alone yet accompanied by a heavily armed police escort, are filmed with a somber noir beauty all their own.
To be sure, in some respects Il Divo’s Andreotti is a caricature (the real Andreotti, no surprise, is no fan). Sorrentino is not looking for balance. He is making the case for the prosecution: Look out for the sequence in which Andreotti is interviewed by a journalist who recites a long list of distinctly awkward “coincidences” for which Andreotti has no easy exculpatory explanation. On another occasion Andreotti is filmed confessing, if only to himself, to terrible wrongdoing.
Sorrentino does at least allow his Andreotti to refer briefly to the Communist threat that had threatened to overwhelm the young, fragile Italian republic. Fair enough. To head that off required tactics unlikely to pass muster in safer, more complacent times. “Trees,” observes Servillo/Andreotti on another occasion, “need manure in order to grow.” Andreotti takes a similar tack in the course of his “confession,” referring to “the deeds that power must commit to ensure the well-being and development of the country,” and the “monstrous . . . contradiction [of] perpetuating evil to guarantee good.” Maybe, but these “deeds” became an end, not the means. The excesses that ensued, and the scandals they brought in their wake, brought both the First Republic and Andreotti tumbling down, even if, the film’s coda suggests, neither fell quite as far, or as hard, as they deserved.
One notable commentator on Italian politics has written that a leader “must not flinch from being blamed for vices which are necessary for safeguarding the state . . . Some of the things that appear to be virtues will, if he practices them, ruin him, and some of the things that appear to be wicked will bring him security and prosperity.”
Somehow I don’t think that Machiavelli would have liked Il Divo. See it nonetheless.
– Andrew Stuttaford is an NRO contributing editor.