An intensely political film so wildly inventive and witty that it will become a touchstone for years to come, "Il Divo" is a masterpiece for maverick helmer-scribe Paolo Sorrentino.

An intensely political film so wildly inventive and witty that it will become a touchstone for years to come, “Il Divo” is a masterpiece for maverick helmer-scribe Paolo Sorrentino. Not merely chronicling the career of seven-time Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti but also zooming in on the enigmatic politico’s character, pic features an astonishing degree of craftsmanship and a towering performance by Toni Servillo. Sole drawback is that nonlocals will feel inundated by names, most of which are familiar only to Italo auds. This is a brave, bold film whose chances of international success are relatively small, but whose ramifications are huge.

First entering government in 1947, Andreotti — currently sitting as a life senator — and his Christian Democrat party basically ruled Italy as a one-party system for 44 years, until the “Tangentopoli,” or Bribesville, scandals finally toppled the party’s hold.

Since the early 1990s, Andreotti has been implicated in a wide variety of illegal activities, including Mafia connections, but he’s managed to be acquitted of all charges. In “Il Divo,” Sorrentino turns expert hunting dog, convincingly laying scandals of the past 40 years at Andreotti’s feet.

That he does so with a bewitching combination of humor and bravado only increases his punch, sure to send Italian viewers out of the cinemas feeling battered by the scope of implications generally known but often pushed away as inconvenient truths.

Pic’s triumph, however, isn’t simply the issues raised, but also the way Sorrentino plumbs the sphinx-like depths of Andreotti’s personality with a delightfully piquant originality that, paired with lensing evoking Sokurov and Scorsese, is little short of breathtaking.

The first glimpse of the man himself, sometimes nicknamed “Beelzebub,” is with acupuncture needles sticking out of his face in an effort to cure his migraine. Thanks in part to Vittorio Sodano’s superb makeup — down-turned ears, fleshy face resembling pallid elephant skin — but largely Servillo’s own genius, his impenetrable features resemble a mixture of Boris Karloff with Buster Keaton, as if a mordant Charles Addams character came to life and took control of the world.

Opening moments knock your socks off as a driving rock number accompanies a montage of assassinations, the victims identified with cleverly designed three-dimensional captions forming a who’s who of murdered politicians, bankers and judiciary, including Aldo Moro, Roberto Calvi and Giovanni Falcone — all guaranteed to put a lump in the throats of Italian auds.

A quick cut to Andreotti, head turned into a blank cartoon bubble thanks to the expert placement of a light fixture, reveals Sorrentino’s genius here for wedding playfulness to genuine meaning.

“Il Divo” largely focuses on Andreotti’s seventh government and fallout over Mafia connection allegations. It was toward the end of this final tenure as prime minister that his deeply corrupt ally Salvo Lima (Giorgio Colangeli) was murdered by the Mafia, the assassination here intercut with scenes of Andreotti at the races.

Later on, following a montage of politicians who killed themselves in the wake of the “Tangentopoli” scandal, an impassive Andreotti is interviewed by a journalist who recites an almost biblical litany of unsavory events linked to the “Divo Giulio,” as he’s known.

Though it may sound as if Sorrentino pitches everything with overflowing speed, he’s calibrated his scenes beautifully, accumulating force for the two sequences that form pic’s heart of darkness. When Mafia turncoats point accusatory fingers at Andreotti, he has to break the news to wife Livia (Anna Bonaiuto), who tells him lovingly that one can’t live with someone for decades and not know who they are deep down. As they hold hands and watch television, Livia silently realizes she, like everyone else, doesn’t know her husband at all; the look of fear and confusion on Bonaiuto’s face is devastating.

Sorrentino follows this with Andreotti’s confession, told frontally as he sits in a chair while wearing his usual expressionless, even-tempered demeanor. As his explanations build, his voice rises in volume, and for the first time Servillo reveals the demon beneath the mask of passivity: It’s like gazing into the face of evil stripped bare.

Sorrentino’s reputation as an actor’s director was always clear, but here in his third outing with Servillo (“One Man Up,” “The Consequences of Love”), he’s reached an alchemical bond with his star. A stooped solitary figure moving through space as if in a vacuum, his head tilted slightly down to push up the roll of fat under his chin, he shuffles or scurries like an insect, not from nervousness but an absolute confidence in where he’s going. Servillo’s facial immobility works as a clearly calculated wall, expertly serving his need to portray the impenetrability that’s kept Andreotti in power for 60 years.

Astonishingly for a helmer whose trademark was a frigid dispassion, Sorrentino displays a delicious sense of humor in both script and lensing. He’s still drawn to an airless quality, but he uses it now in a way that feels completely new and witty, returning Andreotti’s ironic outlook with his own pointed critique.

Together with usual ace d.p. Luca Bigazzi and brilliant editor Cristiano Travaglioli, Sorrentino’s crafted a unique look custom-tailored to his subject, with a camera whose elegant movements create a stunning emotional force.

Though always finely tuned to the uses of music and sound, here again Sorrentino out-does himself, weaving Sibelius compositions with singers like Beth Orton and pairing them to scenes in a way that extracts maximum emotion without feeling manipulative. Final images tied to Trio’s deadpan 1982 hit “Da Da Da” couldn’t be more perfect.

Il Divo

Italy - France

Production

An Indigo Film, Lucky Red, Parco Film (Italy)/Babe Films, Studio Canal, Arte France Cinema (France) production, in collaboration with Sky. (International sales: Beta Cinema, Oberhaching, Germany.) Produced by Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima, Andrea Occhipinti, Maurizio Coppolecchia. Co-producer, Fabio Conversi. Directed, written by Paolo Sorrentino.

Crew

Camera (color), Luca Bigazzi; editor, Cristiano Travaglioli; music, Teho Teardo; production designer, Lino Fiorito; costume designer, Daniela Ciancio; make-up, effects, Vittorio Sodano; sound (Dolby Digital), Emanuele Cecere, Silvia Moraes, Angelo Raguseo; associate producers, Stefano Bonfanti, Gianluigi Gardani; assistant director, Davide Bertoni; casting, Annamaria Sambucco. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 22, 2008. Running time: 117 MIN.

With

Giulio Andreotti - Toni Servillo Livia Andreotti - Anna Bonaiuto Eugenio Scalfari - Giulio Bosetti Franco Evangelisti - Flavio Bucci Paolo Cirino Pomicino - Carlo Buccirosso Salvo Lima - Giorgio Colangeli
With: Alberto Cracco, Piera Degli Esposti, Lorenzo Gioielli, Paolo Graziosi, Gianfelice Imparato, Massimo Popolizio, Aldo Ralli, Giovanni Vettorazzo, Fanny Ardant, Enzo Rai. (Italian dialogue)

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