Paolo Sorrentino‘s 2008 film Il Divo might well be the best movie about politics I have ever seen. After reading a great write-up of the film in Dr. Matthew Ashton’s Political Blog and seeing the Roger Ebert‘s it’s “Nixon meets the Godfather” blurb I knew this was one I had to get my hands on. The minute the opening credits flashed on my computer screen I was hooked. The film, quite literally, takes you by the throat and never lets go. It is the story of Guilio Andreotti, Italy’s seven-time Prime Minister, might be the most polarizing Italian politician since Benito Mussolini. Andreotti has earned more nicknames than Apollo Creed and is known as everything from “The Hunchback”, to “Beelzebub”, to “The Divine Julius”, to “The Black Pope”. Andreotti, who once said, “aside from the Punic Wars, which I was too young for, I have been blamed for everything,” has long been alleged to have significant Mafia ties and has been linked to all forms of malfeasance up to and including assassinations. He has the Clintonian ability to survive every political disaster and emerge with his fingernails firmly lodged in the cliff of political power. Andreotti is a walking advertisement for the ability of an intelligent but thoroughly unprincipled politician to overcome all obstacles in his quest for continued political power.
Il Divo is two hours of mind-blowing scene after mind-blowing scene. Sorrentino has a style that borrows heavily from some of the great masters of the craft, yet he manages to take those ideas in a unique and bold new direction. The film starts with a startling opening sequence, a modern, bass-driven update of the baptism scene from The Godfather. It is followed soon after by a slow motion introduction to Andreotti’s gang that feels like something out of a Leone Western. Then, there is the drum laden post victory celebration dance number featuring one of the most awe-inspiring tracking shots since Kalatazov’s pool scene in “I Am Cuba“. And all that is just in the first twenty minutes. Watching this film is like wandering through the Louvre; everywhere you look there is another classic moment of artistic expression.
About two-thirds of the way through the film, there is an absolutely jaw-dropping soliloquy where Andreotti (played to perfection by Toni Servillo) explains his internal contradictions and motivations. This two-minute section is the film’s crowning achievement. The short speech is an appalling vision of what it means to wield power. It is a statement of pure, unbridled cynicism. In it, Andreotti seems to justify every possible act of iniquity that he has committed as being in the public interest. What is really horrifying about this scene is how convincing his words are. Is the price of power the complete betrayal of all human values? Is this what a person must do to rule? Andreotti’s charisma almost makes you believe that anything is justified in the name of power.
Another element that contributes to the majestic feel of this film is the pulsing, resounding soundtrack. The film’s composer, Teho Teardo, provides one of the most compelling scores in recent memory. He seems to have a preternatural ability to frame the tone and character of a moment with blasts of inspired auditory brilliance. If Sorrentino’s camera is the film’s heart and soul, Teardo’s music is the blood that pumps through its veins.
Il Divo succeeds both as a sprawling masterpiece of epic dimension and a simple allegory of human frailty and weakness. The film never allows you to hate Andreotti but instead presents him as an acutely flawed leader with a deteriorated moral compass that seems to always point south. Sorrentino allows the audience to see Andreotti as not only a powerful man, but also a prisoner of his own power. It is a horrible cage he lives in and we are its bars.