The Film of 2009

1. Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino, 2008)

The biopic can be one of the most teeth-grindingly awful forms of cinema and, with only a few notable exceptions, political ones especially so. Take, as an example, a film like Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008) which, chained to the constraints of the biopic format, rendered very dull a subject matter which had made for a lively documentary in the form of The Times of Harvey Milk (1984).

Almost regardless of the subject at hand, there is the need in such films to simplify their protagonists’ lives in order to follow a simple trajectory: a first act establishing their early successes, second act showing their further rise to prominence and their inevitable meeting with personal problems, and concluding with some form of redemption and at least partial resolution of these problems. So while specific details might differ, in Hollywood’s eyes Harvey Milk’s story is very similar to that of the Ray Charles of Ray (2004), the Johnny Cash of Walk the Line (2005) or any number of other subjects.

There are, of course, exceptions. Last year, for instance, saw Steven Soderbergh’s long awaited Che (2008) diptych, a curiously oblique portrait of the revolutionary superstar, taking an approach which dealt purely with his public surface rather than trying to penetrate his interior psychology. While still obviously reverential to its subject matter, and with a narrative following a near-symmetrical pattern of his rise and fall, the films’ refusal to simplify this highly contradictory figure into an easily-comprehended secular saint made for a more much more thought-provoking and memorable piece of work.

Il Divo might broadly be termed a political biopic, focusing as it does on the life of seven-time Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, but it shows such scant regard for the mores of the genre that it barely deserves the tag at all. Indeed, if the much-praised Gomorra (2008) displayed a clear debt to the brutal documentary-like realism of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, then Sorrentino’s film is more readily identifiable as being in the tradition of Italian political cinema exemplified by Francesco Rosi, in particular his Salvatore Giuliano (1962). Rosi’s film eschewed conventional notions of biography and cast doubts on cinema’s ability to show the past within the confines of a straightforward narrative by telling its story highly subjectively rather than through plainly observed historical fact, and though to an extent large sections of Il Divo contradict this, it is clearly a major touchstone.

Andreotti is a figure who is without parallel in Western Europe: a politician who has circulated near the centre of his Italy’s political heart for the last sixty years. Elected Prime Minister seven times during this period, he was one of the key men who steered the country, rightly or wrongly, through those years, years which saw near-constant political instability and acts of violence from terrorists on both extremes of the political spectrum, and yet also a period which saw the country witness a remarkable ‘miracle’ which saw it build itself up from the rubble and poverty of World War 2 to become one of Europe’s key economic powers. He is also a figure surrounded by controversy: linked to any number of crimes and corruption scandals, as well to various Mafia organizations and the sinister, secretive P2 Masonic Lodge. Despite the allegations, his ‘official’ record remains unblemished.

How, then, to tackle the life of such a figure? If the political biopic commonly tends towards either blind hagiography or rabid character assassination of its chosen subject, it is significant that Sorrentino treads such a careful path between them that after two hours it is by no means clear what the director’s own opinion of the man is. But then Il Divo seeks not to provide easy answers to the complex questions raised by the history of post-war Italy, and how could it? Instead we have a figure as inscrutable as those in the director’s previous films, his inscrutable, unemotional exterior concealing whatever thoughts lie beneath it.

The title of the film suggests someone with a reputation of high, almost divine, celebrity, and yet Andreotti is a figure who tends to attract much less flattering descriptions; “Beelzebub” and “Man of Darkness” are among his other nicknames, and he was once described by Margaret Thatcher as having “a postivie aversion to principle”. From the very outset of the film, it is clear that there is no little irony in titling the film thusly: the first shot we see of him is distant, head-bowed in surrounding darkness, a slow zoom reveal his face to be covered in acupuncture needles, an image inevitably recalling the horrific Pinhead from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987). At other times in the film he will resemble Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) with ears reminiscent of something from Gremlins (1984); these visual references should be enough for most viewers to realise that we are clearly not in the realm of strict realism but caricatured expressionism.

That is not to say that the film has no basis in fact. Quite the opposite, as from as early as the opening title cards – a glossary of some of the key political groups – and onwards from there, the viewer is bombarded with a deluge of onscreen information : places, faces, names, infamous assassinations, political parties, Parliamentary votes, tribunals, all of which likely to be alien to a large majority of viewers, and far too much to begin to digest in one viewing. Cumulatively, though, the effect is to convey the stupefying complexity of the workings of the Italian system, and to illustrate just how many groups have fingers in the political pie.

Andreotti’s own career trajectory – from humble beginnings through to inglorious fall, via personal triumphs and mistakes – actually sounds like the stuff of a simplistic biopic, and yet here the film’s main timeframe of events is extremely narrow, confined to the period in 1992 between Andreotti’s seventh election as Prime Minister and his appearance at the Tangentopoli bribing investigations, and it is only through flashbacks that significant events such as the are shown. Of particular weight is his refusal to bend to the terrorist Red Brigades after their abduction of his friend and political colleague Aldo Moro, a decision which effectively signed Moro’s death warrant. The guilt of this haunts him like Banquo’s ghost does Macbeth.

Far from a straightforward biography, non-linear in its storytelling, a mixture of journalistic enquiry and fancy, social realism and monster movie, just what is Il Divo? The best lens through which to view it is as an unequivocally idiosyncratic Paolo Sorrentino film, a work which sits easily with oeuvre as well as expanding its range, its protagonist a logical progression from those of his previous two films The Consequences of Love (2004) and The Family Friend (2006). Like those films, it boasts a bravura central performance from the remarkable Toni Servillo, though the difference here – that his character has a real world equivalent and one of huge historical significance – has the effect of raising the stakes considerably.

The film also displays the director’s flair for reconciling a fluid, fast-moving visual style with the subject matter of an emotionally detached, inscrutable protagonist. I would not be the first to suggest a splash of post-Tarantino brashness in the mix somewhere here, and early scenes have the irresistible storytelling urgency of vintage Scorsese – Goodfellas (1990) in particular. The soundtrack, a combination of classical music suggesting an operatic tragedy and rock music hinting at a more modern sensibility, is used to very frequent potent effect: see how Andreotti’s alleged hugely symbolic kiss with a Mafia don is ironically followed with a tender love song. The heavily stylised aesthetic pays dividends; if the viewer is finding themselves lost within the film’s political labyrinth, the presentation alone is enough to sustain interest.

Ultimately, it is in the political ideas that Sorrentino manages to convey that the film’s triumph lies. Two scenes stand out: firstly, in an interview with La Repubblica‘s Eugenio Scalfari, it is put to Andreotti that he is “either the most cunning criminal in the country because you never got caught, or you’re the most persecuted man in the history of Italy”. Surely the web of allegations against him cannot be some perverse coincidence? Andreotti, instead of answering, turns inquisitor: why did he prop up his interviewer’s ailing newspaper when allowing it to fall into the hands of Silvio Berlusconi would have made his own political life so much easier? To this, the answer is that it was “more complicated”; Andreotti offers this as his own reply, too. So does the film.

The second key scene is the solitary one where the mask of inscrutability slips – though it is clearly framed as speculation on the director’s part, Andreotti ‘confesses’ his political sins almost straight to camera, revealing his strategy of deliberately antagonizing those terrorists who threatened to throw the country into anarchy in the 1970s. By making them resort to ever more extreme tactics, including the murder of Moro and other assassinations, they were marginalized to the point of isolation from the political mainstream, thus putting them in a context which would prevent their ever gaining any sort of real power. This strategy, making him personally seen to be iron-willed and cold-hearted, resulted in the relative stability the country now enjoyed.

There is a wider point being made here, and one which ties in with many of the film’s repeated references to opera, gothic horror, Catholicism, as well as the role of the body politic itself, and that is the nature of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and their interlinking. Sorrentino ultimately suspends judgement on Andreotti not because he has any sympathy for him, but because his thesis is that his subject’s moral framework is centred around the notion that certain evils are necessary in order for other goods to prevail. This is quite distinct from moral relativism; in Andreotti’s world there is good and evil – he repeatedly makes reference to “the will of God” – but they must be based in pragmatic political realities.

Here is the coup of the film: it is a portrayal of a severely flawed man, one distant to the point of inhumanity, and seemingly bereft of anything which could be considered humane. Yet he is also a man whose personal history is so inexorably tied to Italy’s political history that if we are to condemn him and his political actions, then so too must we his country: the decision, then, is ultimately the viewer’s. Il Divo is no mere political biopic: as a meditiation on the nature of politics, and the sacrifices and apparently immoral decisions which come with it, it is a work worthy of mention in the same breath as Machiavelli’s.

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