Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo, winner of the Prix du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008, is finally getting a limited release stateside and audiences open to daring and inventive foreign cinema should not miss one of the better Italian films of the last several years. Il Divo is a stunning piece of work that feels both familiar and completely unique at the same time. The story contains elements of power struggles as old as Shakespeare and modern mafia films, but the structural choices of Sorrentino’s writing and bold decisions of his direction combine to create an incredibly unique film. From the opening sequence – a jaw-dropping piece of work that intercuts several assassinations to a thumping beat – Il Divo is an unusual semi-biopic about an unusual man and an unusually good movie.
The consistently unique Il Divo is about the controversial career of seven-time Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, a man whose entire life was shadowed by rumors of violence, corruption, greed, and general awfulness. With a brilliant performance by the very unusual Toni Servillo in the lead role, Sorrentino brings to life a man whose deeds were spoken about in hushed tones through not only his political machinations but quieter moments like those spent with his wife or in a confessional.
And the man nicknamed "Il Divo" (or "Beelzebub" to some) had plenty to confess. He entered government in 1947 and still sits as a life senator in Italy, but the last few decades have seen his power diminish in a wave of scandal and rumors of serious wrongdoing. Starting in the 1990s, Andreotti was implicated in a series of crimes, including connections with the Mafia that brought him before Parliament. To Italian audiences, Il Divo must play like a daring investigation of a well-known political figure.
American audiences unfamiliar with the real-life “Il Divo” may find a lot of the film about him difficult to follow. Sorrentino doesn't "dumb it down" and it can be hard to keep up with his script, one so full of names and characters that he's constantly throwing them up on the screen as subtitles to give you some hope of keeping up with who's who. A flowchart or production notes handed out with paid tickets would be helpful.
The density of Sorrentino's script may turn some people off, but I honestly didn't care that I couldn't quite keep up with all of Andreotti's men or the roles they played in his rise and fall. For me, Il Divo was simply a stunning film experience, not a history lesson. This is amazing filmmaking in the details – Sorrentino's incredibly risky choice of music (he uses Beth Orton in a political mob movie), strikingly clever dialogue ("If one wants to keep a secret, one mustn't even confide in oneself"), and inventive cinematography and editing. A sequence that intercuts a horse race and a mob hit makes the film worth the price of admission by itself.
Will you walk out of Il Divo knowing more about a controversial figure in Italy's history? A little bit, but this is not a standard political drama. This is a film more for lovers of moviemaking, not politics, the mob, or Italian history. Sorrentino’s clear love for the power of cinema is infectious, even if it’s employed to tell the story of a scumbag. Il Divo is as unique a movie as you'll see all season and the perfect alternative to the cookie-cutter crap currently coming off the Hollywood assembly line.
Rating: THREE AND A HALF BONES