Thursday, June 11, 2009

Review: Il Divo

Il Divo (2008, Paolo Sorrentino)

Il Divo
has finally arrives across the pond to North American screens after almost a year after its initial theatrical release in Europe and all the subsequent praise it received from our cousin critics. I have my doubts as to how much about Italian politically history, and in particular about former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti (Toni Servillo), North American audiences are familiar with. I shan’t go on any tangent of facts to bring you up to date, may faithful readers, because I myself am an example of someone who knows next to nothing about Giulio Andreotti or Italian political history. They seem to have general elections far too often (their proportional representation electoral system often results in highly unstable governing coalitions in the country’s legislature) and that’s pretty much it.

Did this lack of back-story and general knowledge hinder, in any way, my possible enjoyment of the film? Not at all in fact. This is a strong sign that Sorrentino’s Il Divo is a well constructed film, both in terms of the portrait of ‘Il Divo’ it paints and for its overall sense of style. Those fearing that I’m encouraging you to seek a dry, by the numbers political biopic should rest assured. Dry and by the numbers Il Divo most certainly is not. If any of you have seen the great Michael Mann film The Insider, take a moment to reminisce about how that movie balanced a solid story, great acting and packaged those two ingredients in a very visually cinematic experience. Even the soundtrack and score was excellent. It a great sense of style to it, its own identity which elevated it above the typical ‘based on a true story’ movies. Yeah, well, take that and add twice as much style, make it in Italian but keep the substance. That, in a nutshell, is Il Divo.

The time frame of Il Divo isn’t very expansive, concentrating solely on Andreotti’s years as Prime Minister. No scenes from his childhood which might ‘explain’ why or how he became the man he was, and there is very little involving his private life either. The movie is a brief look, albeit a hazy one at times, at Andreotti at the height of his game, as the masterful, cunning and untouchable politician. A small, mostly quiet man with an iron political will, Andreotti is accused from left to right of having close ties to the Italian mafia and corruption on many, many levels. But this little man is a survivor. He may look meek to those who do not know him, but Andreotti knows the ropes of Italian politics, and knowing what moves to make and when is, obviously, the most important quality a politician can one in his or her career. But his ties to the criminal world and many other important spheres helped as well. His connections deep, deep into the valves of whatever group of people were available to help him. Needless to say that a politician’s success rests, to a certain degree, on the connections he or she will establish throughout their career, but Giulio’s were, much of the time, of a provocative nature.

The film opens in brutal fashion, in which the viewer witnesses the vicious murders journalist and men from the world of finance. Soon afterwards, just before Andreotti is off to meet his newest cabinet team, his closest allies pay him a visit in a private room as he receives a fine shave. These allies, powerful and influential, are of all kinds of stripes, from the business community to the very clergy. Each has a nickname which encapsulates their biggest trait. They, much, like Il Divo himself, are at the top of their games, even though they obviously aren’t and could never be quite where Andreotti is at. Together they essentially form an old boys club, looking out for each other’s interest and protecting their behinds at the expensive of the others if need be (and it usually is indeed the case). Are they really friends with Andreotti? Possibly. It’s also possible that the mere search and discovery of power is what holds this tight knit group together. They have it as long as they stick together, and they certainly aren’t in the mood to let go any time soon. Essentially, about 10 minutes into the film is viewer is fully aware of what kind of ‘leader’ Andreotti is, a man who takes the cake and eats it too.

But who is this man, as a person, as a human being? Well, that’s part of the fun to be had with the film. Toni Servillo’s performance is a incredibly convincing as this quiet but oh so shrewd politician. Intelligent and potentially dangerous even you happen to be on the other team. He doesn’t demonstrate much emotion at all, in fact he doesn’t even talk all that much either. When he does however, it can cut deep or catch someone off guard. Through it all however, Andreotti never fully reveals himself to anyone. Even some of is closest advisors know very little about the man ‘behind the man.’ One of his colleagues even remarks that even after all these of working with Il Divo, he still doesn’t ‘fully understand’ him. Little else matter to him other than politics and the preservation of power. That and maybe the possibility of gaining more power of course. He isn’t the most friendly public figure, not by a long shot, and yet still there is a fascination surrounding him. He is Prime Minister after all, which automatically puts him in the spotlight. But it’s this brilliant balancing act between the seemingly aloof outer shell with the cold calculating machine which lies beneath that makes him such an intriguing enigma for the viewer. In what is arguably the best scene in the film, a seasoned journalist, after being awarded a rather exclusive one on one conversation with the Prime Minister, proceeds to bombard the latter with a series of hard questions, each related to the next, and each one in relation to the incessant accusations of corruption. During this torrent of queries, Andreotti shows absolutely no signs of uneasiness. He takes it all in and waits for the journalist to finish. When afforded the opportunity to reply, 'Il Divo' delivers a politically savvy and terribly clever rebuttal. The scene ends. The journalist, however intelligent and potentially embarrassing his questions may have been, has effectively lost the battle. Brilliant, delicious and evil.

Incredibly, the film doesn’t entirely belong to the titular character, even though he is the main attraction. As mentioned earlier, director Sorrentino injects the film with a sublime sense of style. The technical aspects are top notch, from the intelligent quick cut edits, to the smashing soundtrack which effectively sets the tone for each scene for which it is used. Even without these great elements, there would still at least be Giulio Andreotti to keep the viewer’s attention, but as it stands the movie truly has a life of its own. There are even brief moments during which the viewer is privy to Giulio’s thoughts and imagination (possibly fears). They don’t last long, but their strange quality only adds more colour to this fascinating character. But therein lies another of the movie’s great strengths, that is, its ability and willingness to be playful with its construction. All these visual and audio flourishes help make the film genuinely entertaining, in addition to being an intelligent look into this infamous character. There is a joy to behold in seeing a political biopic have a little bit of fun with itself. It’s not making fun of its characters mind you, but taking full advantage of slick movie techniques found most often in action films or thrillers and using them for a genre that one would not immediately associate with said techniques. The results are surprisingly fresh, just as they were a decade or so ago when Michael Mann earned rave reviews for The Insider, although I would go so far as to say that Il Divo even outdoes The Insider in terms of style.

It's without question one of the better films to have been released on this side of the pond thus far in 2009. If given the opportunity to catch the movie, do yourself a favour and take advantage of it.


Unknown said...

Nicely done, Mr.C.

edgarchaput said...

Thank you for the comment. I try, I only try.