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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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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 and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

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