Film Review: Il Divo

A smash in its native country, this highly engrossing and stylized look at one of Italy’s most notorious politicians is a triumph for filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino. Audiences familiar with “divo” Giulio Andreotti will have a more fulfilling

Forget Teflon dons who evade justice or Teflon execs who spiral upwards no matter their failings. Italy has in infamous Italian politician Giulio Andreotti the Teflon politico, the mover-shaker-enigma-political phenom whom even Italy’s courts and his many adversaries were not able to bring down during his 60-year reign. Decades in power, Andreotti inexplicably acquired a non-stick coating from which unrelenting suspicions of abuse, crimes and corruption rolled off and came to naught.

Filmgoers contemplating patronage of filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino’s dazzling biopic tour de force Il Divo would benefit from a brief immersion in late-20th-century Italian politics, but for most the cinematic roller-coaster ride through the Andreotti years will be enough. Packed with many references, characters and events, and floating titles that don’t always enlighten, the film doesn’t make it easy for non-Italians to get a grip on Andreotti’s political playing field—except for the knowledge that it is fast, furious, fleeting, fickle and unique to a country whose government is known for chaos and corruption.

Il Divo is obviously geared to the natives familiar with Andreotti, who grabbed headlines over a long career that began in 1946 with his election to the Constituent Assembly. Over the years, he earned such sobriquets as “The Sphinx,” “Beelzebub” and “Il Divo” (from a nickname for Julius Caesar), but remained unknowable. His coolly calculating, seemingly passive, ambiguous and inscrutable nature went a long way in assuring this.

Il Divo places Andreotti in dangerous proximity to many scandals, including the suicides of fellow Christian Democrat party members and many assassinations. The unsolved murders of a journalist critical of Andreotti and those of Mafia and Vatican bankers are only a few degrees of separation from the politician. But Andreotti’s Teflon managed to hold, even through several trials late in his career for Mafia collusion and murder.

The film is a stylish mash-up with a pulsating, manic, mesmerizing style that returns “kinetic” to the root of cinema. Yet amidst the many flourishes and a time span that follows Andreotti through his years as Italy’s Minister of the Interior, Defense and Foreign Affairs, and Prime Minister, Il Divo achieves an ineffable, elegant grace. The lavish, cavernous interiors that are the hero’s halls of power also enrich, as does the often balletic camerawork.

Perhaps Sorrentino’s most brilliant choice was casting as Andreotti the veteran actor Toni Servillo (Gomorrah), who won the 2008 European Film Award for his role. Silky, robotic and calmly assured, even down to the pinched-back ears and opaque face, he almost makes the very act of survival seem saintly in spite of so much unsaintliness around him.
Also memorable are Anna Bonaiuto as Andreotti’s stolid, loyal wife Livia and Fanny Ardant (uncredited) as a flirtatious diplomat who captures Andreotti’s attention, if nothing more. Even his sycophantic, enabling band of cabinet cronies—from Vatican bigwigs to publicist-like right-hands to greasy gangster-looking types—are well-cast.

There’s violence on the screen, but Sorrentino also manages to inject playfulness and humor into his work, while never diminishing the chilly possibilities of his protagonist. Also charging up the film are some surreal moments, fades to black-and-white, and an eclectic soundtrack from Sibelius to Euro-pop that adds to the magic and mystery.

Cascading through so controversial a life, Il Divo does not expose or explain its hero. As Andreotti himself said, “You always find the culprit in crime novels, but not always in real life.”