Paolo Sorrentino on His Razzle-Dazzle Rock Opera, Il Divo

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Since 1946, Giulio Andreotti — variously called “The Sphinx,” “The First Letter of the Alphabet,” and, last but most relevant, “Il Divo,” a nickname that descends from Rome’s most notorious statesman, Julius Caesar — has found himself to be the most celebrated and polemical figure in Italy’s byzantine (read: corrupt) political scene, whether as 7-time Prime Minister, 8-time Minister of Defense, or, presently, Senator for life. “Apart from the Punic Wars, I’ve been blamed for everything that’s happened in Italy,” the enigmatic Andreotti once wisecracked. He’s stood accused of collusion and murder (he was convicted, but, as expected given his crafty reputation, was eventually acquitted of all charges).

In his operatic, rabble-rousing portrait of this long-standing Public Envoy/Enemy Number One, Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino fleshes out — with panache and wit to spare — the late-career allegations of Don Giulio’s illicit links to the Vatican, the sub-rosa Masonic lodge P2 (Propaganda Due), and, obviously, the Mafia. “It was impossible to make a biography about his entire life,” Sorrentino told us. “There are two particularly interesting periods in his life: the ’70s, but that period is often recounted in Italian cinema, and the ’90s, which is not as well known. So I chose to look at his decay — it’s always fascinating when you see how the man slowly goes down.”

Spoken like a true classicist. Yet, while Sorrentino’s fascination with the fall of the High and Mighty is as textbook as Aristotle, his hypnotically outré depiction of the descent is hands-down modern — particularly his madcap choice and use of music (Sorrentino’s “rock opera” features Vivaldi beside Beth Orton, Sibelius followed by Trio, all working to a generally compelling degree, specifically a devastating projection of Renato Zero’s “Best Year’s Of Our Lives,” a ballad he chanced upon while in London). Il Divo commences its history-collapsing investigation of a citizen above suspicion inside a shadowy room, where a reflective Andreotti, his face covered in acupuncture needles to alleviate a perennial migraine (an image that recalls Hellraiser‘s Pinhead), muses on those who thought they’d bury him but ended up buried themselves. Past and present then elide into a kinetic, rock-scored spree of wham-bam assassinations during Andreotti’s different administrations, including journalist Mino Pecorelli (1979), fugitive banker Roberto Calvi (1982), and Christian Democrat rival Aldo Moro, who the Red Brigades kidnapped in 1978, quarantined for 55 days, and executed when Andreotti suspiciously refused to deal — his guilt over the affair makes an appearance as “a second migraine, but even more agonizing.”

Later, during the Bribesville inquiries, a rash of suicides unspool with only 3-D captions to differentiate the deceased. Be prepared, dear reader: if the polysyllabic names seem specific to the point of esotericism on the page, Sorrentino makes matters denser by going Mach 5 between the onscreen bigwigs, shuffling between his various Italians with the bravado of an ace dealer. In the end, what’s more essential than recognizing x, y, and z is recognizing their telegraphic connection to Andreotti: it’s accusation by visual association. A journalist (Sorrentino’s obvious avatar) further cements the case when he recites an epic rap sheet in front of a parrying Andreotti, each bullet-point recalling the ghosts of scenes past.

Sorrentino disinters the inner workings predominantly through visual means, fettering psychology to method; for instance, the night before his trial, Andreotti paces his hallway for hours, the camera swivels back and forth like a pendulum, nervously ticking off the time with each pivot. Despite his impenetrable facade, the detailed film nonetheless succeeds in establishing this reserved mandarin as a Machiavellian chieftain, a perception abetted by the tony, go-for-baroque mise-en-scène with its pervasive “symbols of power” (i.e. a brigade of machine-gun-armed guards) as well as the Coppola-style montages that breathlessly fuse the ordinary with the cutthroat. Sorrentino’s go-to actor Toni Servillo (who starred in the director’s slick 2004 breakthrough, Consequences of Love) does his best impression of a stoic Roman bust, portraying the politico as a stooped, shambling prince whose ears curl forward like two magnificent antennas. The director’s two meetings with the man himself provided the somatic template: in brief, his mannerisms were reminiscent of a robot. “But when he does move,” Sorrentino emphasizes, “it has a [heightened] meaning.”

Especially meaningful then is a late non sequitur in which Andreotti delivers a fabricated, face-the-camera mea culpa: he justifies his base actions as a “monstrous, unavowable contradiction: perpetrating evil to guarantee good.” How Moloch the Mystic. Surreal and disorienting, it’s the most plain-spoken moment from a character who, to quote Godfather II, often has “a lot of buffers” — both physical and psychological — in between him and his unseemly bidding. It’s also a marked shift from the earlier biographic quips (“I don’t succumb to lesser vices”) and obviously measured responses; here, Sorrentino’s analogy that compares penning lines to “when the pianist plays by ear” makes sense: he’s tuned out everything except for what resonates. After this surprising confession, there’s a procession of scenes where the press and paparazzi snap up umpteen pictures of the out-of-his-time Delphic figure as he goes before the investigative committees. But rather than delve headlong into legalese, Sorrentino sharply opts for one last stylized indictment as the film fades, not to black, but to a vivid blood-red.

Il Divo is in theatres starting tomorrow; click here to watch the trailer.