Italian cinema may never again reach the heights of its golden age, which boasted such masters as Rossellini, Fellini, Antonioni, Pasolini, and Visconti, but this past decade has seen a renaissance in style that began with Gabrielle Muccini and must now include Paolo Sorrentino, whose “Il Divo” does more to rejuvenate the art than anything since “L’avventura” was awarded, in 1960, a special jury prize at Cannes for its contribution to the language of the cinema.
The majority of contemporary movies have a continued reliance on the primitive grammar of the silent era to telegraph information to the audience. It requires little attention to follow most of their hackneyed stories. If a movie begins with two people, one in a hurry and the other taking a leisurely pace, we know they are the two main characters and their opposite natures will lead to a conflict in their relationship. If a character appears to be too nice, we identify him as a villian and if a character is reticent about becoming involved in a social issue, we know he will emerge as the hero. This hogwash is so deeply carved into our way of reading a film that we do so without thinking.
“Il Divo” is the story of Giulio Andreotti, elected Prime Minister seven times between 1972 and 1992 and, after being cleared of charges that he was connected with the mafia, was named Senator for Life. It is a primarily a gangster movie but, unlike “Public Enemies,” Michael Mann’s over-praised flagellation of a dead horse, is devoid of genre clichés. There are no tearful goodbyes, arrogant boasts, or histrionic protestations of innocence. When a crack appears in Andreotti’s iron façade, it is only to allow a quiet moment of consultation with God.
Toni Servillo plays Andreotti as a cross between Richard Nixon and Andy Warhol, his straight-faced mendacity shrouded in a reticent body language that makes him both approachable and elusive. With an inexpressiveness that challenges definition, Servillo draws a portrait of a man so lacking in human characteristics that, were he to be stripped of his clothing, we might expect to find, with the exception of a few spiders, nothing but dust inside.
Although the story climaxes with Andreotti’s trial. there is none of the folderol that has come to define courtroom drama. He is not being tried so much as he has been trapped, and he does not protest his innocence as much as he waits for the trap to open so he can walk away. Eschewing the dramatic devices of courtroom drama, Sorrentino supplies the visual information necessary to involve the audience as complicit observer without resorting to emotional manipulation.
Since the story is unconventionally told, it is not necessary to understand the history behind the events, or even to keep track of the many characters who might be readily identifiable to an Italian audience. Sorrentino’s brilliant maneuvering keeps us glued to the screen even when we have no idea what is going on.
The soundtrack is exceptional. In addition to classical pieces by Faure, Vivaldi, Sibelius, and Saint-Saens, there are popular selections ranging from Euro-pop to folk and rap. The music is never used for cheap emotional purposes, but functions as a method of regulating the tempos of the scenes. A rapid montage of gangland executions might be slowed down by a classical air, or a propulsive hip-hop sample used to add tension to inertia.
But “Il Divo” is no film school experiment in abstract anti-narrative. There are characters whose behavior is so off-the wall hilarious that you will laugh out loud. And violence so abrupt and in-your-face, that you might even duck when the bodies come hurtling at the camera. The script is both funny and insightful, with one of the best lines coming near the beginning. Andreotti is in a cathedral with an associate, who mentions the rumor that, when Andreotti goes to church, he does not pray to God, but talks to the priest. Andreotti’s reply?
“God doesn’t vote.”