Friday, August 01, 2008

Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino, 2008)

Sometimes you just have to blame your own ignorance when you fail to connect with a movie. I fully admit that Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino’s exposé about the corrupt career of Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, caught me off guard. I was only vaguely familiar with Andreotti in name and reputation, so this film, which is essentially a study in celebrity, was crippled by me not having much idea of who this celebrity is. I suspect, though, for most viewers not intimately familiar with Italian politics over the last thirty-five years, the degree of difficulty will be similar and the viewing experience as off-putting.

From its very start, Il Divo throws an endless stream of expositional incident at viewers. Before the title card comes up, there’s a glossary of terms and facts to give audiences some semblance of orientation, but it’s likely that it won’t be enough to make everything clear once the film dives headlong into a complex world of political backstabbing. The film starts energetically, even overwhelmingly, with a series of graphic assassinations set to a throbbing Cassius song. Subtitles inform us who each of the victims is, but after a while it begins to seem irrelevant. The movie pulses with importance and excitement at every moment, but it deliberately wears the audience down with an unremitting portrait of a system gone awry.

Sorrentino, always a stylist who resists understatement, once again directs the fuck out of one of his movies. As operatic as its title implies, Il Divo is confident and overblown to an almost distracting effect. Tony Servillo, usually a reliable actor, plays the lead here, but he’s hamstrung by his director and made to play Andreotti as some sort of grotesque goofball. The whole movie feels like a parade of insufficiently contextualized violence, garish color, and completely random musical cues (e.g. the baffling Beth Orton bit). It’s impressively made at times, with great art direction and unflagging energy, but it’s downright exhausting. For me, the experience of watching it was much like what watching Oliver Stone’s JFK would have been like had I watched it in fast forward, and had no idea who JFK was.

Somewhat singular because of its sheer force of will, but ultimately puzzling, Il Divo is hard to discredit entirely, because it so clearly operates on its own terms. Sorrentino has made the movie he wanted to, for the audience he wanted to. There’s nothing to be sorry about in that gesture, especially when a dull biopic is the alternative. Indeed, even to my uninformed eyes, the way that the movie slowly becomes less about indicting Andreotti, and more about decrying the hopelessly corrupt political environment he inhabits, is impressive and incisive (though I’m unsure whether or not excusing Andreotti to some degree is fair). Whining that Il Divo clearly is not intended for non-Italians, seems self-centered in this case, especially considering the country’s political state of affairs.

Rating: 41/100

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