30 January, 2010

Il divo (2008)

Behind the throne

Won Best Actor (Toni Servillo) and was nominated for Best Film, European Film Awards 2008

Showbiz has its divas - politics, at least in Italy, has 'il divo'. AKA Giulio Andreotti, alias Mr. Italy, Little Caesar, eternal Giulio, Beelzebub, Gobetto ('cute little hunchback'), and probably many more diminutives not fit for a G-rated film review.

'Toni Servillo E Giulio Andreotti' might scream the Italian trailers, like 'Jamie Foxx IS Ray Charles' in the typical Hollywood biopic formula. Only Il divo (2008) is not formulaic, and may not even be a biopic.

Says writer-director Paolo Sorrentino: 'I want Il divo to be seen for what it is: a film, a story, a fable.' He makes no claim to understand the "profoundly narcissistic" world of politics (a previous film, L'uomo in più (2001), took place in the world of professional soccer). Sorrentino, from an interview in Belgium's Le Soir, is primarily interested in the title character, whom the newspaper calls 'the impenetrable Andreotti'.

Even though he may not understand it, Sorrentino portrays the Byzantine world of Italian politics with panache. Prepare yourself for a whirlwind of political intrigue, only 10% of which you need understand to enjoy this Cannes award-winning film. Is it important to know that Andreotti was prime minister seven times (one of his governments lasted all of nine days)? Or minister 25 (or is it 33) times? Not really, when you realize that Andreotti was (and remains - he is a Senator-for-life) a permanent fixture of postwar Italian politics, which has had some 60 governments in as many years.

Though not a Mafia film, there are nonetheless plenty of murky murders in the time-honored tradition: machine-gun ambushes, poisoned coffee in a 'safe' jail cell, plastic bag over the head - death in all its forms. That this happens during Andreotti's rule does not make him guilty, though he was convicted (and subsequently acquitted) for crimes ranging from conspiracy with the Mafia to murder (of a journalist who apparently had the goods on other Andreotti-era political crimes).

There are cameos of famous crimes, like the car-bombing of anti-Mafia Judge Giovanni Falcone, the London Bridge 'suicide' of banker Roberto Calvi, and the kidnapping/assassination of Aldo Moro, Chairman of Andreotti's Christian Democrats, by the Red Brigades.

Sound like fun? It is, actually. There's a great original score by Teho Teardo, in a soundtrack that includes some appropriate period music, including the unforgettable Da Da Da. Sorrentino favourite Toni Servillo plays the hunchbacked, Scottish Fold-eared, mournful-faced Andreotti with a fervor that the 90 year old politician must have possessed to stay in Italian politics (and out of Italy's prisons) for so long. Including the Archives, which were said to be the key to Andreotti's power over everyone with a secret to hide.

It may be my own taste in films, but I have the impression that Italian cineasts are slightly obsessed with the last half century or so of their history. It's been rich in subject matter: the 2003 Buongiorno, Notte covered the Moro affair from the Red Brigades standpoint; La Meglio Gioventù (2003) was a magisterial portrait of the last four decades; Sanguepazzo (2008) reached back to the Fascist era; and Il Caimano (2006) skewered Silvio Berlusconi before his return to power two years later.

Though Sorrentino reminds us that Il divo is a fable (maybe for reasons of libel protection), his film hints that Andreotti was at least guilty of association with a whole cast of unsavory characters. Especially for a church-going, Pope-befriending, defender of the West, as he was seen during the Cold War. But, as Vanja Luksic said in Le Soir's excellent companion article heralding the film's release in Belgium: 'Commentators, from left and right, breathed a sigh of relief at his acquittal. Had he been found guilty, it would have meant that Italy had been governed by criminals for 50 years!'

Awards: Click here for details.

Gerald Loftus
110 mins. In Italian and English.

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