Thursday, June 25, 2009
KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando reviews the new Italian film Il Divo
The Film Club of the Air: Host Maureen Cavanaugh and critics Beth Accomando and Scott Marks discuss "Il Divo."
For more than 50 years, Guilio Andreotti was one of Italy's most powerful, feared and intriguing political figures of the post-war era. He is now the subject of a new film called "Il Divo" (opening June 26 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas). The film won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year. You can listen to my radio feature (where you can hear some of the great music used in the film) or read the extended review.
To call "Il Divo" a bio pic is like saying Michelangelo painted a little and Shakespeare wrote a few sonnets. It misses the bigger picture. In the case of "Il Divo," it's that this is quite simply the best film so far this year and it announces 39-year-old director Paolo Sorrentino as a talent to watch. The thrill of watching "Il Divo" reminded me of what it was like to see Martin Scorsese's early films. Both filmmakers share an intuitive sense of how to mix music (from classical to pop) and images for maximum impact and pleasure. And both exude (or in Scorsese' case used to, not so much any more) such joy at pushing the medium to new heights that you can't help but be swept up by their enthusiasm. Check out the trailer to get a taste of what the film is like.
The film hooks you from the beginning. A series of title cards lays out the political and historical backdrop of the film, which is a tumultuous post-war Italy. The extensive amount of information conveyed in these text graphics leads you to expect a conventional biography that will play out in chronological order and dryly examine the facts of Andreotti's life. But if that's what you're thinking, think again. Sorrentino then introduces Giulio Andreotti, one of Italy's most famous elder statesmen and possibly one of its most corrupt. We catch up with him as he's about to start yet another term as Prime Minister.
Andreotti is a misshapen man not unlike the Machiavellian Richard III of Shakespeare. And like Richard he takes the viewer into his confidence revealing a sly wit and pride in his own machinations. Andreotti explains that he suffers from migraines and that doctors said he should have died decades ago. But he's still here, and Sorrentino's interested in his story. When we first meet Andreotti he's sitting at his desk. Classical music is playing on the soundtrack and Sorrentino has the camera slowly move in on him. When the Prime Minister looks up from his desk he reveals a face covered in acupuncture needles so he looks eerily like "Hellraiser's" Pinhead. Then bang… Sorrentino interrupts the elegant calm of his opening with contemporary music and a quick cut montage of assassinations that explain in the clearest of terms why people fear Andreotti.
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As Andreotti's new government is installed, he explains how he's been blamed for everything that's gone wrong in his country. People have also given him nicknames ranging from The Hunchback to The Black Pope to the devil himself. But Andreottii smiles and says he's never pressed charges because he has a sense of humor… and because the people he wants to shut up magically do. Like Shakespeare said, "one may smile, and smile, and be a villain."
Sorrentino moves back and forth in time, showing events out of order or teasing us with mysterious images that only make sense later. He pummels us with such a dizzying onslaught of information, people, and events that our heads spin. Yet we're riveted to the screen, unbothered by occasional confusion because everything pays off in the end. We're fascinated by Andreotti and dazzled by Sorrentino's assured filmmaking. Each shot feels like a miniature work of art – carefully framed, exquisitely lit, and with superb production design. There's so much showmanship on display from both the director and his subject that it's downright intoxicating. Again that is very much like Shakespeare's Richard III who was also a savvy politician and who delighted in how he could manipulate people and turn any situation to his advantage.
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Toni Servillo plays Andreotti and he's absolutely mesmerizing. He rarely raises his voice and keeps his movements to a minimum. But that's because his character runs things with such exacting control that he doesn't have to. The performance reminds me of Paul Sorvino in "Goodfellas," who didn't have to do much or say much or move fast because he simply didn't have to. Similarly, Servillo's Andreotti doesn't have to do much because he has so many people working for him and doing things for him. But Servillo and Sorrentino also find humor in Andreotti, as in a scene where the Prime Minister has a showdown with a cat on his way to a meeting. Andreotti, claps, and expects the cat to immediately clear out. When the creature fails to move you half expect Andreotti to put a hit out on the arrogant kitty. Servillo is quite adept at this physical comedy. He also maintains a deadpan expression to rival that of Buster Keaton. And like Keaton, Servillo has a very exacting sense of movement. At a couple points in the film, he makes an odd, sharply executed pivot turn as he moves down regal hallways. His strange movements are comical but in the driest manner possible.
The real Giulio Andreotti has gone on record saying he doesn’t like this movie. That's to be expected considering some of the things the film alleges he has done. But if Servillo's performance is any indication of what the man is like, Andreotti may be letting a smile curl up ever so slightly on his tight lips as he enjoys the attention of this cinematic epic devoted to him. The light may be unflattering but he emerges a fascinating enigma. He may commits horrible acts yet he exhibits wicked humor and is not altogether unsympathetic.
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Like the recent film "Gomorra," "Il Divo" plays better to an audience familiar with recent Italian history and politics. But unlike "Gomorra," "Il Divo" places an emphasis on entertainment and showmanship in order to keep the audience engaged. Sorrentino knows he has a fantastical tale to tell and he delivers it with all the drama, spectacle, and flamboyance of a great Italian opera.
"Il Divo" is unrated and in Italian with English subtitles. Be listening June 30 when "Il Divo" will be one of the films up for discussion on the KPBS Film Club of the Air at 10 am on These Days.
Companion viewing: "Gomorra," "The Godfather," "Goodfellas," "Rocco and his Brothers," and check out anything that the San Diego Italian Film Festival might be showing