Il Divo

For his fourth feature film, director Paolo Sorrentino crafts a dazzling and damning biopic of disgraced former Italian Prime Minister Guido Andreotti, the seven-time premiere whose reputation was destroyed by allegations of mafia involvement, political assassination and financial corruption.

Il Divo opens with a long, information-heavy series of title cards before Sorrentino introduces his subject in a long, slow tracking shot that gradually fills the frame with Andreotti’s face, dotted with acupuncture needles, his tiny black eyes peering out from behind thick glasses. Fitted with pointy prosthetic ears and with his back stooped in a crouch, Sorrentino’s regular lead Toni Servillo plays the politician like Max Schreck’s Nosferatu, a misshapen man forced by chronic migraines to live in the shadows, an unsettled insomniac who stalks the corridors of power, constantly scheming.

Then, in the style of a flashy gangster movie, Andreotti’s cadre of closest supporters is given an individual slow-motion vignette as they emerge from sleek sports cars to gather in the courtyard of the prime minister’s Roman villa. These are the men that enact their master’s bidding; some of them serving him for decades under the banner of his Christian Democrat Party. They all have nicknames, The Brute, The Lemon, The Cardinal. The film’s title is what the used to call Andreotti, Il Divo, “the divine one”. Behind his back, they called him Beelzebub.

Andreotti’s gang have become accustomed to power and the gifts it bestows, but as they talk through their latest political plans, they are unaware that this will be their last stand. A scandal known as Tangentopoli (or “bribesville”), which exposed the political system as ruthless and corrupt, is about to blow up and nobody will escape unscathed.

On one level, Il Divo is a biography of a fascinating man told in a combination of real events and fantasies that mixes hard-nosed facts with equally flinty speculations. On another, the film is an extended metaphor for how Italian society has been bled dry by corruption, a position it shares with Matteo Garrone’s blistering Gomorrah. ‘Irony is the best defence against death’, Servillo whispers at one point, and although the film is filled with quotations from Andreotti, this one was written by Sorrentino. In keeping with the detached, sardonic style he has developed, the director condemns his subject at an oblique, making a political biopic in the style of a ganger movie, re-writing real events as hyper-stylised fictions and using sound and vision to create startling contrasts that subtly snip away at Andreotti’s reputation, and more cuttingly, his vanity. It is a remarkable performance from Servillo who show’s an uncanny ability to sustain a character who does not want you to know anything about him.

I went in knowing nothing about post-war Italian politics and I came out again having learned little more but I was gripped throughout by what is a brilliantly told story that, as we continue to wade through a decade or more of political sleaze, has a particular resonance for Irish audiences.