New Italian Masters (1) Paolo Sorrentino’s “Il Divo”

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.”

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3 thoughts on “New Italian Masters (1) Paolo Sorrentino’s “Il Divo”

  1. I like your review, here, very much. Glad to see there’s a revival of sorts and after I watch more of the classics, I will get around to watching this one. I liked your insight regarding audiences are trained to connect and formulate opinions about characters and plot.

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  2. An excellent review of what sounds like a very good film. One to look out for I’m sure, Bill. Like you, I have become inured to the plot and character constructions in modern mainstream films. The hero in danger who cannot be killed, because he is in the already advertised sequel, the too-nice man who must be the murderer, and so on. Any change from this pattern is most welcome.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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