Monday, July 20, 2009

"Il Divo"

The tepid cartoonishness of Oliver Stone's W. suggests that, as the director of JFK and Natural Born Killers approaches his seventieth birthday, he's having trouble deciding whether he wants to be praised for having "matured" or instead wants to hear that he can still lay out whoopee cushions with the best of them. In his dotage, Stone can at least take pride in knowing that his work has not been without influence. The Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo, a gonzo biopic about Giulio Andreotti, who dominated the Christian Democratic party for decades between his arrival in Parliament in 1946 and the last of his three terms as Prime Minister, which ended in 1992. (Named a Senator for life in 1991, Andreotti is still hanging in there at ninety, and ran unsuccessfully for President of the Senate in 2006.) Andreotti's last term as PM coincided with a massive corruption scandal that consumed and destroyed his own party, and which may, just be clearing the ground, may have helped lead to the Berlusconi era in Italian politics, which would be a hard thing for any serious man to have to live with. Andreotti may have much worse things to live with: after his term ended, he was indicted on charges of complicity with the Mafia, in trials that dragged on for years and which resulted in some convictions that would ultimately be overturned. Il Divo begins with Andreotti (Toni Servillo) sitting at his desk, alone and wreathed in darkness, musing about how all his life, he has managed to somehow outlast those who predicted his imminent defeat or demise. He sounds like a bemused naturalist describing an interesting trait in a strange species of insect life that he's just discovered, which happens to be himself.

In terms of style, Il Divo is the anti-Gomorrah, in that that film (which also featured Toni Servillo) seemed to suck the life out of the room in its efforts to treat the subject of corruption in Italian life solemnly and unglamorously, Sorrentino came to party. The first several minutes, which include a montage of gaudily staged violent deaths of characters whose acquaintance we have not yet made, amounts to a guarantee that, whether or not you understand the first thing about Andreotti or his role in recent history by the time this movie is over, you won't be bored. Il Divo isn't boring, but its in-your-face style, which is sure to be lauded by a lot of people as a brilliant demonstration of how to bring a complicated subject to life, is more than a little insulting. I've already heard one reviewer marvel at how a movie that deals with the minutiae of Italian politics might turn out to have international appeal, but Il Divo doesn't really help you understand much about how the Italian parliament works beyond the usual depictions of glad-handing and arm-twisting, and it doesn't help you understand Andreotti's particular genius for survival and for accumulating power. At one point he tells the camera that he has a vast "archive" in his mind that relates to anyone who challenges him; are we to infer that the key to his long career has simply been that he's got something on everybody? That's kind of a comedown, especially in the context of a movie that presents it as a given that he's some sort of lizard sage, a one-of-a-kind genius of the game. Sorrentino is less interested in telling you anything than in showing you fireworks. If you're wondering where all those years of MTV "stye" went after the channel turned into a reality show network, my best guess is that Sorrentino picked it up cheap at a yard sale.

This is a movie that purports to tell you something about what goes on behind the scenes but which is, itself, all surface. Servillo walks through most of it with his face set in a prune-like expression and his shoulders hunched up into the back of his neck; he looks like Geoffrey Rush playing Peter Bogdanovich imitating Richard Nixon. He and most of the other actors seem to have been turned into living caricatures of the men they're playing, and there are lots of scenes of them acting like gangsters or just walking around, overdressed and in slow motion to the accompaniment of booming music, as if in a lost episode of Miami Vice. Probably this stuff plays a lot differently if you've seen the original versions of these characters on the TV news every day for years, but at its best, these scenes still should be the set-up for a deeper, more detailed satire that never really arrives. In the domestic scenes that might be used to show another side of Andreotti, he's the same colorless drone who appears before the TV cameras, and it's hard to tell whether this is a joke or just an admission to a failure of imagination on the part of the filmmakers, who couldn't imagine how he could ever be any different. It may be both.

Il Divo does have its smarter moments, which at their best are smarter than anything we've come to expect from Oliver Stone on his better days. There's a terrific, iconic image of Andreotti's midnight constitutionals: in his formal suit, he walks the streets of the deserted city, accompanied by a car moving alongside him at a slow crawl and a phalanx of bodyguards with their guns at the ready. He looks like an updated creature out of folklore--the little man who secretly runs the world and can never be seen by mortal man, for his own good, and maybe for mortal man's, as well. And Andreotti has one remarkable scene, a fantasy monologue in which the great man reveals what he would say, to explain himself and his view of the world, if only he could let his mask drop and just let fly. But for the most part, Il Divo leaves you with the feeling that Sorrentino is just fine with not knowing or even speculating on what's going on behind the curtain. Andreotti is legendary for the sour wit that. over the course of his long career, has produced a thousand glittering, cynical epigrams, and Sorrentino may be so appreciative of them that he doesn't want to really get at what's behind the mask, only to flirt with the idea a little. The movie keeps reminding us that "truth" is unknowable, to the point that it begins to sound like a statement for the defense. It may well be the case that it's one of the rules of the universe that we can never know the whole truth. But one of the reasons people make movies is that it gives them a chance to create a world where they make their own rules.

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