Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino’s 2008 Cannes Jury Prize-winning study of Italy’s “Life Senator” Giulio Andreotti (who shares his titular nickname with Julius Caesar) is an art-house crowd popcorn flick. Dense with Byzantine political information—blink and you’ll miss a crucial subtitle—the film should have been a miniseries, but nevertheless is steeped in the country’s populist operatic tradition, and moves with the speed (not to mention slo-mo action sequences) of a Luc Besson film. And like that high-flying Frenchman’s movies, Il Divo has the feeling of being completely choreographed. It’s a ballet on steroids, downright militaristic in its precision. Between the lush production design and sweeping camerawork, the overwhelming opera score alternating with roaring rock and roll (and even a silly tune from 80s pop-tart Trio), you forget you’re watching the story of a leader whose ruthless administration makes Bush & Co. look like Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity. (Though all those Bush conspiracy theories do find their counterpart in Italy’s “strategy of tension,” which holds that the government causes chaos to create fear and maintain power—in this case for decades. In lieu of Skull and Bones there’s the secret society of the P2 lodge, of which Silvio Berlusconi, naturally, was a member.)
This puts Il Divo at odds with that other recent study of Italian systemic corruption, Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah. Whereas Gomorrah features the gritty realism of wannabe gangstas reciting lines from Scarface, Il Divo absorbs the slick Hollywood viewpoint itself, spewing it back out in highly stylized imagery. Andreotti’s inner circle is first presented in Reservoir Dogs fashion, with aliases like “The Shark” and “His Holiness” flashing onscreen under their names as they fill the frame. A sequence crosscuts between a horse race and a vicious murder a la The Godfather. Goodfellas comes to mind after The Shark, who resembles Tony Soprano, quits Andreotti’s Christian Democratic faction, leaving the rest to ponder his Judas-like behavior while dining Last Supper-style by a pool. For all its heavy exposition Il Divo is less journalistic than Gomorrah. Indeed, it’s great surface entertainment that doesn’t dig deep; an Italian film for those Hollywood-worshiping Italian youth in Gomorrah.
But then, comparing Sorrentino’s Steadicam biopic to Garrone’s handheld epic is probably as ridiculous as comparing Spielberg to Soderbergh. Il Divo is, in fact, a damn fun ride, a go-go film that truly moves. Even before a dry courtroom scene where Andreotti is finally about to be tried, a sequence of reporters loading video cameras is edited like a chorus line, as security checks every nook and cranny for bombs, and the paparazzi’s bulbs flash like gunfire in the defendant’s face. Sorrentino’s movie is made all the more engaging by Toni Servillo (who also showed his suavely corrupt side in Gomorrah), as the highly uncharismatic, hunchbacked leader with the perfect comic timing. When a doctor suggests the premier try playing sports instead of anxiously pacing, Andreotti wryly replies, “All my sporty friends are dead.”
Seeming like a stone-faced, robotic, nearly autistic version of Kissinger, Servillo’s Il Divo commands the screen even when sharing it with a kiss-ass strategist and budget minister (alias “Minister”) played by the Larry David look-a-like Carlo Buccirosso, and Flavio Bucci’s Dali-resembling “right arm” (alias “Lemon”) who gives the ruler a watch as a gift. Interestingly, it becomes nearly irrelevant that a seven-time prime minister whose opponents just happen to die on a regular basis remains an enigma throughout Sorrentino’s film. Andreotti, who is called an “extraterrestrial” by a journalist in Il Divo, and even today at 90 remains evasive and unapologetic, is a mystery the director wisely chooses not to unravel. Why bother when the mystery in itself is so captivating?
There’s one fantastically surreal scene that takes place during a vicious rainstorm. (It’s every bit as bizarrely dreamlike as the imagined, rapid-fire, seated confession Andreotti later delivers to the camera that finishes with a theatrical lights out.) Il Divo’s bodyguards struggle one by one, and then hilariously all together, to open a stuck backseat door as torrents of water strike like bullets. Inside sits the premier safe and dry, not lifting a finger to let himself out. He’s not so much stoic in the face of the mayhem all around, but terrifyingly, purposefully unaware.