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“You Sin in Thinking Bad About People—But, Often, You Guess Right”

Il divo: La Straordinaria vita di Giulio Andreotti, Dir. Paolo Sorrentino, Now Playing

Andreotti bides his time. © Indigo Films
Andreotti bides his time. © Indigo Films

"It is not always easy to explain our country to foreigners. In Italy the slowest trains are called “fast” and the evening news comes out in the morning,” Italian political godfather Giulio Andreotti once said. And director Paolo Sorrentino doesn’t attempt explanation. He’s recreating history: the history of (as near as I can make out) Italian politics of the 1970s and 1980s. The nuts and bolts of that world strike this non-Italian as so Byzantine and unfathomable that I almost instantly gave up trying to link this or that sinister conversation to any event outside the halls of power. Apparently Italian audiences needed little context; they lived through it.

Though the Italian government features a bewildering array of elected and appointed titles, suffice it to say that Andreotti savored his position as the most powerful man in the country, whatever title he might hold. According to the film, Andreotti ceaselessly conspired with the Mafia, businessmen, other elected and appointed officials, and the Vatican. He deliberately left the wildly popular Aldo Moro—a mainstay of his own party and a potential rival—to rot in the hands of Moro’s Brigate Rosse kidnappers. After months of Andreotti’s refusal to negotiate, Moro’s bullet-riddled body turned up in a car trunk. Andreotti’s rivals and allies both regarded Moro’s murder as the quintessential Andreotti maneuver: ruthless, effective, and swathed in plausible deniability.

Paolo Sorrentino, in a conversation with the Rail, expressed the central dilemma of his narrative thus: “What’s fascinating about the character is that he is a work machine without any kind of emotion. The film is about an immobile character who doesn’t move and the film has to recreate that and make it dynamic.” Andreotti always held quite still, spoke in epigrams (“Power wears out those that don’t have it”), seldom traveled, and never admitted a damn thing. The mysteries and power dynamics swirled around him; he remained unchanged and unknowable. To suggest the deranged world of excess and corruption, and the director-imagined internal thrills that power brought Andreotti, Sorrentino utilizes a deliriously moving camera.

Endless floor-level tracking shots suggest the daily grind; orgasmic swooping cranes illuminate passion, greed, even sarcasm. The frames spin and twirl; gravity’s obsolete. Sorrentino’s reaching for visual metaphors for a topsy-turvy world in which there is never a stated truth, only truth contained in action. Did Moro’s murder benefit Andreotti? There’s all the truth you need.

For much of the film, the adrenalized camera suffices in place of drama. A number of murders and suicides and abductions provide brief kicks, but the default presence remains Andreotti, a black hole of understatement with fold-over ears like Dumbo. When it’s time for a key reveal (who murdered whom, what verdict a trial provided, who got how much jail time), Sorrentino reverts to titles—to the only cold hard facts he’s got, presented in a cold hard mode.

That tactic, and Sorrentino’s penchant for cheap irony in the soundtrack—“Da Da Da” by Trio makes an overstated but not quite relevant score for the closing credits—undercut the life-and-death seriousness of the tale he’s chosen to tell. It’s as if the director was so overwhelmed by the cynicism of the history he’s teaching that he had no choice but to fall back on the classic Italian position: sophisticated bemusement. 


David N. Meyer

David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2009

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