Most Americans would be hard-pressed to name a post-war Italian statesman other than maybe Silvio Burlesconi, so Il Divo's deep, breathless dive into the minutiae of Italian politics is likely to leave most domestic moviegoers at least somewhat bewildered. But what bewilderment: Writer/director Paolo Sorrentino and star Toni Servillo tackle the later career of scandal-tainted but unbowed three-time prime minister Giulio Andreotti in a way that dazzles with lapel-grabbing verve and elliptical smarts.
Il Divo gets going in earnest with a fusillade of deaths, as a journalist, various bankers, a crusading magistrate, and former prime minister/Andreotti rival Aldo Mora meet violent, stylishly filmed ends. Sorrentino's movie never connects the deaths directly to Andreotti, but many did. And as Andreotti begins his seventh administration in 1992, rumors swirl about his Mafia ties and a government investigation moves in.
That's pretty much it for plot, but then this is not a political thriller or whodunit. Instead, Sorrentino focuses his attention on Andreotti, a figure simultaneously fascinating and unknowable. Servillo, nearly unrecognizable from his recent turn as slick fixer Franco in Italian crime drama Gomorrah, channels Andreotti as almost literally sphinx-like: hunched, his body never moving above the elbows, his face an impassive mask. In voiceover he talks about his blinding headaches and his love of the arts, but he seems impenetrable, irreducible, as the carnival of Italian politics rotates around him. Whether he's taking a middle-of-the-night stroll through the streets of Rome with a full security detail or passing through a Fellini-esque samba party in a luxe apartment, he's the same turtle-ish enigma, always ready with a dry quip. Only one scene finds him losing his cool, and it's directly to the camera, almost as if presenting a side to viewers that his coterie of cronies never sees, much less ordinary citizens. It's a biopic performance that outstrips any since Marion Cotillard's Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose.
Sorrentino's movie is not without its moments of urgency—as the investigation closes in, a relentless soundtrack bassline raises the pulse rate—but there's no real denouement. Indeed, the various historical details and political complexities would come completely undone if they weren't all tied together by Servillo's performance and Sorrentino's brilliant filmmaking. It would be a shame to miss the latter two because of misgivings about the former two.