Italian politics are tremendously confusing. This is the first lesson I took away from Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo, winner of the 2008 Jury Prize at Cannes. It is a marvelous and inventive and fun motion picture through and through, but none of this changes the fact that it's fairly merciless: if you don't understand the way tha the Italian government functions before going into the film - I didn't, really - pray you're able to pick up details along the way - I was, but only just enough to keep going.
The film takes as its subject the real-life politician Giulio Andreotti, elected seven times to the Italian Parliament as representative of the centrist Christian Democratic party, numerous times the President of the Council of Ministers (rendered as "Prime Minister" in the film's subtitles, to keep confusion down), and still, at 90 years of age, serving as Senator for Life. His long, wildly controversial career has seen him linked to the Mafia and officially acquitted of any such culpability; his many nicknames include "Il Divo Giulio" (a play on "The Divine Julius"), "The Black Pope", "The Hunchback", and "Beelzebub". All of these facts are given to the viewer in a flurry of title cards that one suspects were probably put in especially for us rock-stupid Americans, and for that I can only heave a sigh of relief. It's hard enough to follow the movie as it is.
Roughly speaking - and when I say "roughly speaking", I do mean roughly - the film is concerned with a reasonably brief span of Andreotti's career, beginning in 1991 with his seventh government's rise to power, and proceeding to his trial for Mafia-related killings, a case that lasted from 1996 until 1999. At the same time, Sorrentino freely includes moments from earlier, dramatising several assassinations that Andreotti may - or may not! - have been involved with, and referring often in dialogue to moments from Andreotti's past.
That being said, the main thrust of Il Divo is not to present a historical account of Andreotti's career, nor to definitively indict him for his many rumoured crimes (though it would be hard indeed to walk out of the movie without having the strong suspicion that he was involved in far more shady dealings than the average genially corrupt politician), but to present as fully as possible the character and mindset of a man who has largely succeeded in making himself the most opaque, unknowable man in Italian politics. In this, Sorrentino is aided to an invaluable degree by Toni Servillo, an actor and theater director of little renown in the English-speaking world (he was also in last year'sm well-regarded Gomorra), but who is, to judge from this one movie at least, one of the most uncannily gifted performers in the history of cinema. I'm sorry, that was hyperbole. What is not hyperbole, however, is that Servillo gives a truly exquisite performance, easily the finest seen on U.S. screens in 2009 thus far. It is rich with small details: like Marlon Brando in The Godfather, he speaks every line quietly, knowing that he will be heard and understood simply on account of being a man of great importance; while all around him is busy movement, he hardly ever moves when it is not wholly necessary, knowing that he is an anchor for reality, not the other way around; with his heavy eyelids and weirdly bent-over ears, he looks startlingly like Max Schreck in Nosferatu. Which is, I'm certain, not an accident: for if he is not the monster that his opponents accuse him of being, he is at the very least not at all like a regular, mortal human being.
I'm so passionate about this character and performance that I'm going to stop talking about them, and instead beg that if you get the chance (and thanks to the magical elves at Netflix, you can have the chance, even if it's not for a while yet), you should absolutely see this film. And if the notion of seeing one of the decade's great performances isn't enough to do it for you, how about this: Paolo Sorrentino is a visionary filmmaker, in an era when that word gets fucked around like the town whore.
There are, I'm sure, antecedents to the crazy things Sorrentino does with narrative structure and imagery in this film, but I'm drawing a bit of a blank. Oliver Stone's Nixon, clearly; in some respects, particularly his representations of violence, he seems a touch redolent of Quentin Tarantino; but the one filmmaker I find myself thinking of most of all is Wes Anderson, whose aesthetic is already a mutant version of the space between Truffaut and Godard. What leads me to this, I think, is Sorrentino's very rigorous use of centered framing, usually one of the big "no-nos" in composition, but something that works quite well here. Then, there's his extremely invigorating use of camera movement; not swooping, swooshing Steadicam voyages like Martin Scorsese likes so much, but rigidly linear dolly shots, parallel to the action or moving straight in or out. The whole film takes place exclusively along the Z- or X-axes; but it doesn't feel limited, quite the contrary. With his geometrically precise camera and compositions, Sorrentino has done a suberb job at demonstrating cinematically the same level of unblinking control that Andreotti exercises over everything he touches. There is no room for improvisation or flexibility or anything that isn't perfectly balanced in this man's world. He even exercises his grip over the movie that contains him.
And so we come back to the film's, and I hate like hell to use this word, "flaw". It was made by an Italian in Italy for an Italian audience, and so the underlying context is all assumed. The ideal audience for this movie not only understands Andreotti's world; they probably remember with crystal-clear detail the events depicted. I have loved many American movies that function the same exact way, so I cannot even begin to criticise Il Divo for doing this. But as an American writing for a largely American audience, I can't help but confess: the film's narrative is incredibly, overwhelmingly complex, and if you don't do your homework ahead of time, I guarantee you will be absolutely flummoxed. The movie has enough going on that's flat-out genius on both sides of the camera that I am almost equally willing to guarantee you will not ever be bored. But making sense of this film is hard-ass work, and I have to let that influence the number ranking I'm about to give it, which I hope you'll see fit to ignore. I mean, there's a whole damn review telling you what I thought about it. Let's not allow a thing like a number to denigrate the degree to which I want to have this movie's babies.