Paolo Sorrentino’s film Il Divo is the opposite of refreshing. In fact, it proves more of a cynicism-inducing boost to preconceptions about political life in general, and its chaotic Italian manifestation in particular. Viewers unfamiliar with the minutiae of 1970s-to-1990s Italian political history may focus on the surreal shape of Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti’s ears. So haunting were they that I was only put at ease by finding (via Wikipedia) Andreotti did indeed yield an even more remarkably misshapen photograph.
Il Divo is an exercise in anti-charm. Sorrentino’s film is impressive with its pleiad of freak show characters – the constant display of various forms of ugliness in a myriad of permutations (the preposterously womanising finance minister Pomicino, the satanic-looking advisor Evangelisti, and the incongruous vegetable-growing mafia godfather) is the common visual motif running from beginning to end.
Having said that, the cinematography is indeed spectacular, especially in the mosaic of apparently disconnected visual motives (the gigantic crater of the car explosion killing judge Giovanni Falcone, the puzzling airplane scene of two children pulling faces at a high-ranking mafia informer) which later turn out to be flashbacks replayed and explicated as events progress.
All in all, Il Divo is as far away as we could possibly get from an airbrushed, postcard notion of Italy. Sorrentino instead bets on a different kind of spectacle – a cynic’s funfair – arguably in an attempt to get to a “real” version of a country whose political, economic and ecclesiastical life is deeply gangrened. It’s a male-centric (the three females characters are all secondary), mafia-permeated, badly dressed Italy with corruption and crime as its twin powers. We get to see politics at its grimiest, most grim, most murderous worst – minus any residual glamour or charisma you might associate with Italy and Italians.
Paradoxically, though, the cynical tone and ever-present irony works. While the film is deliberately and explicably ambiguous about its title character’s relationship with the mafia, his involvement in a few of the assassinations and failure to save his predecessor Aldo Moro’s life (since Andreotti was initially convicted of murder and had his sentence overturned on appeal), they are Sorrentino’s best weapon against what comes across as the utter powerlessness of justice and truth in Italy’s public life.
By this logic, the repulsive and incongruous ensemble of characters is the author’s tacit comment on the political personae and events the film depicts – the courts may have cleared Il Divo of corruption, collusion and murder, but the film’s acerbic portrayal leaves little room for doubt. This is why the ugliness paraded in front of our eyes for two hours is not only tolerable but vital, for it is quite alright to feel sick when the state of a European democracy is so blatantly sickening.
Il divo: La straordinaria vita di Giulio Andreotti DVD is available in stores.