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Chinks in his Armani

The life of Italy’s malevolent former leader is rendered in unforgiving style

<strong>Il Divo (15

A film that begins with a glossary outlining the intricacies of Italian political history has an extra hurdle to clear on its way to engaging an audience. But then the director Paolo Sorrentino doesn’t make things easy for us, or himself, in Il Divo, subtitled The Spectacular Life of Giulio Andreotti.

The enigmatic and guarded Andreotti (Toni Servillo), seven times Italian prime minister, was implicated in the Tangentopoli (“Bribesville”) investigations into political corruption in the early 1990s, the period on which the film focuses. Complicity with Cosa Nostra was alleged, and Andreotti was tried (and then convicted, before a subsequent acquittal) for the murder of the journalist Mino Pecorelli. So, this is an unsympathetic figure, as well as an unknowable one, and Sorrentino tries to turn those obstacles into the meat of the film. One underling informs Andreotti: “I’ll never understand you. I don’t know you.” Another says: “You make it tough to care about you.” Both charges could be levelled at Il Divo, a morass of political power games in which only Andreotti’s malevolence is ever clear.

Occasionally it seems there are chinks in his Armani. He confesses to a priest that he can’t stop thinking about Aldo Moro, the Christian Democratic party chairman who was kidnapped and murdered by the Red Brigades in 1978, during Andreotti’s fourth government. “Why didn’t they take me instead?” he implores. If it is remorse he’s feeling, it soon warps into wounded pride. “Moro was weak,” he complains. “I’m strong.” The warm glow that other people get from approval or affection, Andreotti takes from threats to his life.

There are only two stars in Il Divo, Toni Servillo and Sorrentino’s visual style, and it is a patient viewer who will not tire of at least one by the end. Sorrentino uses every trick in the book to keep the screen looking busy, which would be fine if it was his book. The cross-cutting between brutality and ceremony is pure Coppola; the marriage of violence and rock music can’t improve on Scorsese; and the freakish close-ups should by rights have “© Fellini” in the corner of each frame. The surreal touches (a flying skateboard, a Persian cat with David Bowie eyes) are as arbitrary as the film references, which include ants crawling on a hand (Un chien andalou) and an Alka-Seltzer fizzing in water (Taxi Driver). Even those lowly supporting characters destined to be glimpsed only once get the honour of a slow-motion stroll like the astronauts in The Right Stuff.

Servillo is the serene point about which the rest of the film spins wildly. His Andreotti is physically compelling: he scarcely moves, and when he does, it is as if on casters. His expansive forehead, oversized glasses and wing-mirror ears give him the look of Peter Bogdanovich reimagined as a Bo’ Selecta mask.

When we first see Andreotti, the acupuncture needles protruding from his face make him resemble a regal version of Pinhead from the Hellraiser movies. But the picture doesn’t really consider him to be monstrous, any more than it believes violence should be implied rather than shown in lip-smacking detail. Every privilege available to a movie character is lavished on Andreotti: he narrates the film, he is the only person about whom we learn more than a nickname, and the sleek Steadicam follows him everywhere like a loyal puppy. There is even a fantasy sequence in which he confesses his sins; this doubles as a leg-up for the audience, like Richard Nixon’s fictional late-night outpouring in Frost/Nixon, and a mea culpa, longed for in Italy but unlikely to have much impact anywhere else.

It’s a kind of tyranny when a director lobbies for our interest in a character by cordoning off all other options, and it helps explain why Il Divo is such an alienating experience; if you recoil from Andreotti, there is only the film’s glossy surface left to respond to. Sorrentino’s last film, The Family Friend, was just as ghoulish – it, too, played like an experiment to discover how an audience would react to a protagonist (in that instance, a loan shark) lacking in any sympathetic qualities. But there was reflected warmth coming off the victims in that film, which lent some contrast to the cruelty of the main character. Il Divo removes even this, and proves that an experiment taken one stage further can still be a step backwards.

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Gran Torino (15)
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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.