The winner of countless Most Director awards at major international film festivals, Paolo Sorrentino sculpts music-video moments with viscous slo-mo, ripped-from-your-iPod soundtracks and screengrabable widescreen compositions with comically odd details front and center. In Il Divo he takes on recent Italian history as personified by seven-time Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, a hunched, fastidious, gnomic figure who, unlikely as it seems, is something like the keystone of Italian political corruption from the anti-Leftist Strategy of Tension in the 60s to the Bribesville scandal and Big Mafia Trial of the 90s. When Andreotti (Toni Servillo, dry as an autumn leaf) breaks character, he delivers a cathartic egocentric, spittleflecking justification for doing what was necessary, but he’s mostly a walking — shuffling, really — anticlimax, which is arguably the point.
Recent cinema’s — and perhaps recent history’s — closest parallel is the anticoloniast jurist turned sangfroid-y apologist Jacques Verges, subject of Barbet Schroeder’s Terror’s Advocate. But while Schroeder delved into the hyperlinked cultural memory bank, Sorrentino’s ill-suited for a gig as historian. Gratefully not your standard biopic-by-wikipedia-chapter-headings, Il Divo is all back-channel stuff — but then, the minutes of added English pre-credit titles preceding the Italian ones give you a rough idea of the volume of headlines Sorrentino is going behind. We begin with a Godfather baptism-ish assassination montage, the victims identified by subtitle (we’ll continue to see new characters introduced this way throughout). Set to techno, this is actually something of an overture: Sorrentino loves starting with an eye-catching flash-forward: get our attention, and explain it later.
If he explains it at all. (Does Sorrentino think a moment’s atmosphere will be diluted by context?) Partly it’s that, not being Italian, most of us can’t be as familiar as we need to be with the history he stylizes: if you remember where you were when you heard that the Mafia had blown up Giovanni Falcone, maybe Sorrentino’s restaging of the moment will sting like a reopened wound — but if you just googled Giovanni Falcone to figure out who he was, the cutaway from a parliamentary session to busted Fiat freefalling in endless slow motion will seem weirdly, pointlessly ostentatious.
It may not, though, simply be a matter of familiarity: Sorrentino is simply an ostentatious director. He seems to subscribe to François Truffaut’s “every minute, four ideas” dictum, but unlike Truffaut or fellow spaghetti-sticker Arnaud Desplechin, Sorrentino likes to linger over his digressions. Andreotti and his ministers doing a Walk Thing out of a Leone Western, Andreotti’s traipse through the corridors of power interrupted by a pesky cat, an uncredited Fanny Ardant making googly eyes for no clear reason — and all slowed down via frame speed or virtuosic shot length. Il Divo cycles between alternating chunks of montage, exposition, and decontextualized nonsequitur.
I love how D.P. Luca Bigazzi’s dusty pewter palette encompasses everything from wallpaper to the frames of the blocky 90s eyeglasses everyone wears; and, perhaps less marginally, the way Sorrentino treats the Aldo Moro affair — in 1978, Andreotti’s political rival was kidnapped by the Red Brigades, held for 55 days, and then killed; Andreotti refused to negotiate, for murky reasons — as modern Italy’s original sin. So too did Good Morning, Night, the more overtly political Marco Bellocchio’s treatment of the kidnapping; Il Divo could provide the juicier, more expansive perspective missing from Bellocchio’s too set-bound film. But Sorrentino, often a literally sensational filmmaker, can’t focus. Maybe the reason he built his movie around a cipher was so he could have more space to show off.