The Third Person Exasperated
On the DVD extras, Il Divo director Paolo Sorrentino suggested the main influence upon the film was the British movie, The Queen. In theartdesk.com he made clear this wasn't an idle remark. "Without Stephen Frears' The Queen, I don't know how I could have made Il Divo." It is one of those points of comparison that would be unlikely to come to anyone's mind but the director making the film. The Queen seems sedate and serene. This story about Italian prime minister and president Giulio Andreotti at a particular moment in a very long career brings in so many names that anyone who is not up on Italian politics in the post-war years will watch the film with a sense of bemusement that needn't be the same as indifference. By making the film as complex as he felt it needed to be, Sorrentino manages to give the film a labyrinthine relationship to power that, even though he sees the film as his most concrete, functions as his most abstract. "'I do like to explore relationships of power, as most human relationships are poisoned by it...This is my ultimate film in that sense. Because this one goes straight to the core of the problem, without any metaphors at all.'" (theartsdesk.com) However, while no metaphors may have been intended, the entire film might work for many as a metaphorical exercise in power so dense is the information offered. As Peter Bradshaw said in the Guardian: the film is "almost traumatised with its own information overload and by the frenetic accumulation of data". Anthony Quinn in the Independent reckoned "a knowledge of Andreotti's court of toadies and henchmen would help...but it's not essential to one's enjoyment." The Queen offers none of this dizzying detail. The film's very need to offer so many names and killings leaves the film feeling like a metaphorical account of power as it goes beyond the logistical accumulation of information that we find in Battle of Algiers and even All The President's Men. The latter gave the experienced scriptwriter William Goldman so much trouble, as he tried to fit numerous real-life people into a story which wouldn't make sense without them, that he concluded while he'd have written all his other scripts, "I wouldn't have come near All the President's Men..." (Adventures in the Screen Trade)
If Il Divo is informationally even more complex, this idea of complexity is an intricate one. An Italian viewer will presumably know more of the details than someone outside the Italian context, but if Sorrentino had focused chiefly on three deaths that are explored here and that received immense international attention (Aldo Moro's, Roberto Calvi's, and Giovanni Falcone's), we wouldn't be inclined to see the film as a baroque, abstract exploration of power. Aldo Moro was the Italian Prime minister kidnapped by the Red Brigades and held hostage for fifty-five days before being shot dead in 1978. Calvi became known as God's banker and was found hanging from Blackfriars bridge in 1982. Falcone was a judge and prosecuting magistrate determined to take down the Mafia; the mafia instead took out himself and his wife in the early nineties. All three are key political incidents and Sorrentino gives them due mention with the aid of garish red subtitles, but he also does the same for various other less well-known killings, including those of a police chief, a journalist and a liquidator. This isn't even Sorrentino insisting he covers all the names: a few others in this opening sequence who get killed go nominally unacknowledged. All this is played out behind Cassius's 'Toop Toop', an anachronistic song from 2006 that, nevertheless, captures very well the chaos Sorrentino compresses into a few minutes as he covers more than a dozen years. The song is presented as an ironic piece that peppily indicates a good time while the country was undergoing a terrible one. If Sorrentino wanted to play fair to the facts then why not detail all the killings; and why include a more recent pop song to overlay the sequence?
What we have here is the ironic baroque, quite distinct from films like The Battle of Algiers and All the President's Men (and very far away from The Queen): an aesthetic we find in different ways in other Sorrentino movies like The Consequences of Love, Youth, The Family Friend and especially The Great Beauty. What we have in Il Divo is not first and foremost a film about Italian politics that demands the baroque, but a filmmaker of the baroque who sees its evidence in the politics of Italy. The first three minutes of the film convey very well how chaotic, dangerous and complex Italian political affairs happen to be, but this is also Sorrentino sandwiching a dozen years into a very short space of time all the better to illustrate his aesthetic. This is evident too during the sequence when we are introduced to the Andreotti faction of the Christian Democrats, again shown to us with the aid of red subtitles. These figures are also brought to our attention with the maximum formal fanfare, with Sorrentino never using one shot when three can do. When MP Vittorio Sbardella gets out of the car the film cuts from a long shot of the motor to a series of close up and medium close-ups of Sbardella exiting the vehicle. There is a closeup of his hand on the door, the tyre taking the weight of his body as the suspension absorbs his exit, and a low angled-slow motion shot of him moving towards the building. This is the baroque as editing style, and finds its painterly equivalent a few minutes later when we see a shot/countershot with the journalists gathered taking photographs of Andreotti and his cabinet. Both are dense shots with numerous people, while in the background there are baroque paintings on the wall. The lighting is chiaroscuro and might bring to mind Rembrandt's marvellous examination of power in baroque form, The Night Watch, or numerous other paintings by Hals or Rembrandt. This is painting that found in art a new power structure, a new means of examining money. As John Berger says in 'Hals and Bankruptcy': "a new energy has been released and a kind of metaphysic of money is being born. Money acquires its own virtue". (About Looking)
Il Divo is an exploration of this virtue through the virtuoso, as if Sorrentino himself wants to finds money's value correlatively: with a form that doesn't come cheap. It isn't that Sorrentino's budgets are so high (5.7m euros for Il Divo; 12.2 m for Youth and 9.2 for The Great Beauty); more that the style indicates money spent, both diegetically and non-diegetically. When Paolo Cirino Pomicino arrives at the government office we see him flanked by two press secretaries elegantly turned out. Shortly afterwards we witness a huge party and just as Andreotti leaves at midnight it looks like the party will really get going. Pomicino moves through the rooms with his light, airy body ready to dance the night away, with hundreds of bodies moving lithely and wriggling tantalizingly to the numerous drummers hired for the occasion. This is Italian cinema at the other end of neo-realism, with Sorrentino absorbing the Coppola of The Godfather films, the Scorsese of GoodFellas and the party scenes found in Antonioni and Fellini movies. It is a cinema of decadence, one that wants to show people know how to spend money and which gives filmmakers the license to splash out as well. The writer who sits in his study pumping out two thousands words detailing a lavish ball, or even the painter filling in all the loving detail with his brush, needn't insist that the form meets the content: that the cost of rendition be met in cash terms. Filmmaking traditionally has put its money where the camera is, even if now CGI can digitally recreate for example great wealth without having actual displays of it in front of the lens. Yet Sorrentino looks as if he likes to see it splashed around in multiple cash digits rather than computational ones and zeroes.
Money is what makes the world go round, Sorrentino would agree, but let's call this anti-clockwise capitalism: cash that doesn't lead to the betterment of all, but the enrichment of the few. The lavish parties we often find in Italian films reflect this, from La Dolce Vita to Identification of a Woman, we sense that money doesn't trickle down. It is siphoned off. Sorrentino suggests that in this anti-clockwise capitalism corruption is endemic and perhaps inevitable. It becomes a capitalist closed shop with a small number of players dictating the rules and the wider public seeing little of the money coming in. Deals are done behind closed doors and behind the public's back as Sorrentino adopts, Godfather-like, dark interiors even if the light will be shining outside. People speak sotto voce, as if political speech is not for public consumption, but for private gain. The film doesn't only show wealth; it also shows how it is hidden.
Raffaele Ariano interestingly sees Andreotti as an example of what Carl Schmidt calls a katechon: "by determining the friend-enemy distinction and the state of exception, Andreotti is the agent holding back the impending catastrophe." ('Portraying the Black Pope') Andreotti is at the centre of wealth but isn't someone who benefits from it enthusiastically. Thus he seems like the kind of man who should lead a country because while he isn't against money's hoarding, he lacks the exuberant personality which would demand he spend it. Here is a man who can hold back the impending catastrophe by virtue of his anhedonia: his inability to experience pleasure. When we see Pomicino shuggling his way through the vast rooms at the party, it is just after we have witnessed Andreotti hunched up on the couch keen to get home. There is little sense that Andreotti is a man who wants money, celebrity or sex; he wants power, which is very close to morality even if in a bastardized form. Andreotti's is a moral system that insists politics is so corrosive, so corrupted, that it needs someone who will not take advantage of the political situation but will merely sublimate their own desires into abstract principles without principle. Merely not to take advantage fully of the wealth and luxury that surrounds him makes Andreotti appear like a virtuous man. But the film suggests this virtue does not stretch to the improved lives of the people, nor in an unwillingness to take out the lives of others. His sin would not be lust, greed, anger or gluttony but that of pride, or more specifically hubris. Yet this is hubris close to bad faith, which allows us to look at the ancient sin of hubris in tragedy and apply it to the modern problem of mauvaise foi, with Andreotti believing that Italy would be a far worse place without his presence even if there are killings all around him. And why wouldn't he think this? He was the steady ship in the choppy waters of post World War II Italian politics, someone who knew what mattered wasn't how well one sailed but how determined one was that the boat not capsize. Rupert Cornwell noted on his death: "in some ways Andreotti was the embodiment of post-war Italy, and not just because he was, beyond argument, its most powerful politician, who was prime minister a record seven times and almost never out of government between the late 1950s and the early 1990s."
But this is where bad faith, mauvaise foi, meets hubris, evident in a couple of remarks Andreotti was known for. One: "I recognize my limits but when I look around I realise I am not living exactly in a world of giants." The other: "You sin in thinking bad about people - but, often, you guess right." These are the comments of a man who thinks in the negative and thus turns himself into a positive. It is the bad faith that indicates nothing will work without him, even if there is little that is positive in the way things work with him. Halfway through the film (in the early nineties) he is interviewed by a journalist from an important, independent Italian newspaper who suggests that the series of political suicides appear connected to Andreotti. Andreotti replies that if it weren't for his intervention, the journalist's newspaper would have ended up in the hands of Berlusconi. The journalists' freedom to ask Andreotti tough questions is only possible because of Andreotti's manoeuvres in the past. If you want to retain your freedom, Andreotti implies, you must forego it. Better to kowtow to his will, he suggests to the journalist, rather than finding himself under the ownership of Berlusconi. This is, of course, the veiled threat, but it is also the belief that Andreotti probably possesses that things are much better when Andreotti is curtailing freedoms rather than anyone else doing so. The hubris rests in wishing for power; the bad faith in believing that no matter how powerless you wish to make someone it is for their own good.
Thus those opening few minutes of montaged mayhem provide us with an ironic preamble to the 'success' of Andreotti's years in government. If this is what success looks like, heaven help us when failure arrives. Andreotti's bad faith, however, is so pronounced that he can find himself entering a church like a man who doesn't have too much to feel guilty about. He practices less confession than self-justification, with one eye also on the voter. The voter is the inversion of the citizen: the citizen is the subject for whom policies must be implemented to make their lives better. The voter is someone who must be persuaded (often against their own best interests) to place a cross against a particular name on the ballot sheet. Early in the film while Andreotti is in church he is talking to the minister who discusses the idea of speaking to God or to the priest., Andreotti would talk to priests rather than God, saying: "Priests vote. God doesn't." Later on, in a dispute with Pomicino, Sbardella talks about walking away and taking three hundred thousand votes with him. Yet anybody who suffers as much as Andreotti must be suffering for a reason. If he isn't a man who wears his heart on his sleeve he looks like one who has the weight of Italy on his shoulders. Sorrentino's regular actor Toni Sorvello plays Andreotti as a man hunched and shrunken, moving through space like he would prefer to remain unseen. When looking at others he darts his eyes across at them, a man trying to look at another while hoping the other isn't looking at him. Above all else, he is someone given to pounding headaches as we see Andreotti throughout the film putting his hand on his head in a gesture that could indicate a soul fretting over the state of the country or merely the neuralgic pounding in his skull. While he certainly can give a very good impression of a man who is thinking about the chaos of Italy, he may chiefly be concerned with the cluster headache inside his cranium. One can see this as the misplaced correlative of concern: anybody who looks that tortured must be fretting over what is happening to his country. Andreotti wouldn't only see this being played out in the newspapers, but also when he looked at himself in the mirror. How can somebody with such a continually worried countenance be thinking of anything else?
However, perhaps nothing worries like abstraction, nothing is more fretful than self-concern, and surely nothing like self-concern inextricably associated with your country. Most politicians could claim an aspect of this trepidation, but they are very rarely in power for anywhere near the length of time that Andreotti was. A US politician is allowed a maximum of two terms no matter if they imprint themselves strongly on the imagination, as Reagan, Clinton and Obama have done; occasionally the UK has a prime minister who lasts more than a decade like Blair or Thatcher, and the same in Germany, with Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel. Mitterand lasted fifteen in France; De Gaulle ten. Our point is twofold: firstly that these are much better-known names than Andreotti; secondly that they would usually retreat entirely from a governmental role once out of power. Andreotti was an unusual eminence grise, a behind the scenes man who never seemed to appear powerful when prime minister, and never seemed to lose that power when he wasn't. As Donald Sassoon said in an Andreotti obituary: "From the early 1960s to the early 90s, he was - almost uninterruptedly - either prime minister or a senior minister. Andreotti was in all but six of the 45 governments that ran from May 1947 to April 1992, led seven of them and, at various times, was the minister of defence, foreign affairs (five times), finance, treasury, and interior." (Guardian). When looking in the mirror Andreotti wouldn't only be looking at his face thick with worry, dense with scheming concentration, he would be seeing that face associated with Italy's post-war history. This may have been self-concern that he was showing but this didn't mean it couldn't claim for itself a purpose far beyond its own narcissism. This might be the ultimate in bad faith: a belief that you are interested in others when only interested in oneself, but involve yourself in the maximum amount of machination to hide the fact. Someone who is only interested in themselves might possess a quality we don't like, but the figure obsessed with themselves who reckons that they are chiefly concerned with others practises a monumental act of self-delusion.
That is all very well, but how does one film such a sensibility? If we find the comparison with Frears's film odd, it rests not least on the faith Blair practices as Prime Minister. There will be many who would have been disappointed at how Establishment a politician Blair proved to be months after winning power. But anybody who wanted to remove clause 4 (which insisted on nationalising key industries) from the Labour party's manifesto when he became leader was unlikely to fall out with the powers that be which Blair wanted to join. But The Queen is a far less complex film than Il Divo and possesses a far simpler trajectory. It covers the period of time after Diana's death, the way in which Blair responded much more successfully to the public mood than Queen Elizabeth, and the way in which he wanted the Royal family to become part of that public mood. The film has an extended cast of characters including Tony and Cherie Blair, the Queen, Prince Phillip, and Prince Charles, Alistair Campbell and the Queen Mother, but they aren't baroquely presented: they are structurally delineated. As Graham Fuller would say in Film Comment: "The film makes brilliant use of juxtaposition to underscore the class divide between the Windsors and the Blairs. It contrasts Philip and Charles in their tweeds and kilts with Blair in his soccer shirt, Philip tinkering with his barbecue in the Highlands with Blair being asked by Cherie if he wants fish sticks for tea." The equivalent scene in Il Divo is closer, again, to The Godfather. Andreotti is at the races, with the film crosscutting between Andreotti looking his usual worried self, and various killings taking place. It is the montage of implication, as a pounding rock score plays on the soundtrack. There is no categorical connection between the murders and the racehorses let alone between the killings and Andreotti, but that is the point with such montage sequences. They can do several things at once. They can denote implicitly and connote explicitly. They suggest it is entirely possible that Andreotti is behind these slayings, but even if he is not, they function as metaphors for his guilty thinking more generally. While Frears' film is a clear and coherent study of long-established class categories; Sorrentino's indicates a florid world where categories are constantly defying easy assimilation.
Speaking of Andreotti, Sorrentino says, "all things about him are very close to paradox because everything is double. A lot of people love him and a lot of people hate him and he has the ability to be very popular but at the same time is very reserved and very snobbish. There are a lot of examples of this kind of thing. He is a complex phenomenon and it's not easy to understand the reasons for his success." But Sorrentino also adds, "For Italians, Andreotti is a sort of pop icon so I approached the movie like a movie about Iggy Pop and tried to make a sort of rock opera about a man who's very close to that world - because he's very popular - but, at the same time. for style and for culture it's very far from the rock world. I was scared to do a classical biopic that could be boring." (Filmmaker Magazine) Sorrentino doesn't mention any names but his cinematic style would be much closer to the Ken Russell of Tommy rather than the Frears of The Queen. This rests partly on the intoxicating nature of an environment. Frears presents English class and politics as a sobering force; Russell and Sorrentino present politics and rock as opportunities to discover natural and unnatural highs. No doubt in Il Divo's case this intoxications rests on the thin line between the political and the personally dangerous, with there rarely being more than one or two degrees of separation between an Italian politician and a gangster in the film's presentation. Il Divo's environment is one where you might get a suitcase full of money or a bullet in the head, adored by the public yet loathed by the mafia (a la Falcone). But we also have Andreotti, as a sober a figure in politics as any country could possess (and a man who would certainly make Blair look easily excitable). Yet he also had the capacity to make others dance to his tune, with Sorrentino taking this metaphor into a genre that would suit his needs. This is the rock opera sub-genre of high adrenaline, quite distinct from the general musical that usually expects to have a calming effect on our nerves; it would be interesting to see how close a particular approach to the gangster film happens to be to the rock opera, with Scorsese utilising music especially well in Good Fellas and Casino to indicate that music as readily as drama captures the mood of characters who can never quite relax - as if always on some violent equivalent of the dance floor. It is as though the cinematography can't relax either, with Sorrentino, like Scorsese, adopting a constantly roving camera that has been a forte in much of his work but finds a justifiable expression in this one. It creates a useful contrast between a man who looks like he moves minimally and with embarrassment and a camera that moves freely and with confidence. When for example Andreotti gets up to leave the aforementioned party his movements are stiff and slow, but the camera circles around his shuffling with far more fluidity. Arcing around Andreotti and his cohorts this contrast nevertheless observes that while he might be a man with creaky bones, he also has the fluid capacity to make life very hard, very quickly, whenever he wishes. It is the camera reflecting power rather than merely capturing it.
We may note however that many of the director's films have characters who represent fixed centres against a mobile non-diegesis. The camera moves but the character does not. Whether it is Sorvllo's characters here, in The Consequences of Love and The Great Beauty, or Michael Caine in Youth or Giacomo Rizzo in The Family Friend, Sorrentino wants stillness that he can circle around rather than diegetic movement he can run with. This gives his work an unusual melancholy (as well as an occasional lurch towards moody mannerism, a need to push perspective to indicate cinematic production values are at work). The characters are old, defeated, lost, but the camera insists on finding an energy missing from the people themselves. Yet this incongruity between form and content never in Sorrentino arrives at distanciation. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that recent cinema frequently leaves characters behind or circles round them all the better to capture an aspect of the broader context or the giddiness of fear of power, evident so clearly for example in numerous scenes in The Dark Knight. In Il Divo, whether it is Fanny Ardant's character, a French ambassador wife, coming to meet Andreotti or Andreotti meeting political affiliates in the palace, the camera works to indicate the nature of his power. In the first instance, we see the ambassador's wife walking along the corridor on one side of the building in the relative light as the camera laterally tracks from inside a series of darkened rooms intermittently lit by the open doors which allow light in and shows her moving through the building. It captures power but doesn't quite alienate the viewer from its formal effect. When Andreotti meets his colleagues he moves towards them in the vast hall but the camera is high and in retreat: seeing that power can be better caught in a high angled, sweeping removal rather than staying with the man in power. There is nothing surprising in this and many a Hollywood film will move away from characters rather than towards them to indicate the salient aspects in the shot that makes it clear we are focusing more than on just the specifics of character. The other reason is that Sorrentino wants to generate high affectivity rather than low is that he is interested in emotional intensification, even pathos. This is the side that is more opera than rock: Sorrentino likes focusing on characters who indicate a high degree of regret, nostalgia or loss. This isn't the same as sympathising with Andreotti as we might identify with Servillo's character Titta in The Consequences of Love. In the latter film, Titta may work unequivocally for the mafia but he is lovelorn and generous, sacrificing and brave. By the end of the film, he will find himself lowered from a crane into cement, but we will also know that a young woman cares about him and old folks have benefited from his largesse. He has left the fortune he owes the mafia to elderly folks in the hotel he was staying in. Nothing in Sorrentino's technique removes us emotionally from the story because the rules of engagement are carefully followed narratively. We are on Titta's side.
This is less so in Il Divo, so where does the identification take place that leaves us inside the story even if not quite inside the motives and feelings of the character? We return to our initial claim: the politically baroque. Sorrentino more than in any of his others films (perhaps even more than in the very stylized The Great Beauty) wants us to identify with his style and be not a little mystified by events. When we see Andreotti meeting various members of his team, the impression Sorrentino gives is that he is being very specific in detailing these characters as the subtitles and slow motion would seem to imprint everybody on our minds. But what it does is not so much tell us who these people are; they tell us who Sorrentino happens to be as a filmmaker. He is saying that you might not now these various individuals but you will know stylistically who happens to be introducing them. It' s as though he seeks in the mystery of the visible mastermind usually invisible (Andreotti) to reveal something of his own hand. This is nothing if not a film directed. Sorrentino's film may be in the tradition of Z, All the President's Men and Illustrious Corpses in the informationally dense nature by which he informs us of events, but unlike Costa-Gavras etc. he also insists on a cinematically baroque style with which to accompany it. This may ostensibly make the film still more complex, but we are more inclined to think it does the opposite - without necessarily insisting it is a pejorative claim. Has Sorrentino found a decent metaphor for Italian political opulence in a cinematic style that says he can't quite escape the opulence himself, and is this finally the opulence that is drawing together so many of these characters into a world of power and competition? In theartsdesk interview, Nick Hasted notes, "two Neapolitans are wrestling for Italian cinema's crown. Paolo Sorrentino and Matteo Garrone's rivalry was for a time so personal that, though they were neighbours, they didn't speak for years." Sorrentino doesn't seem averse to hierarchies and egotism if this claim is true and one often senses while watching a Sorrentino film simultaneous influence and imposition. Like Brian De Palma he is unsure whether to see forebears as heroes or rivals, saying "the filmmakers that I consider points of reference, who I grew up watching and admiring, like Martin Scorsese or Fellini or Bertolucci, move the camera a lot, and I grew up liking that. Also, when you're shooting a movie, it's very tiring but also very gratifying, and I want it to be like that. So moving the camera a lot demands a lot from myself and from my crew and I think that it should be like that. Moving the camera makes people work hard but also feel gratified for what they did." Here he shows he can emulate his heroes but he is wary of competing with them, though the competiton is evident. "My film [The Great Beauty] does tackle the same issues that La Dolce Vita deals with, however, I tried to not allow myself to be influenced by that, because La Dolce Vita is a masterpiece and one doesn't touch masterpieces. You don't even go there. You just let them be wherever they are." (IndieWire)
Perhaps this is Sorrentino's good faith where we see in Andreotti bad faith. Andreotti is the invisible auteur, the master manipulator behind the scenes who will not acknowledge his signature. Sorrentino insists that his signature be so pronounced nobody will doubt the director responsible for the film. It makes the film's baroque aspect much more obviously indulgent than the baroque we see in work by Pakula, Costa-Gavras and Rosi, with Sorrentino reckoning that if we must have obscurity within the story, then let there be satiation in the form. In Film Comment, Marco Grosoli notes: "Pans, dollies, and tracking shots from wildly disparate points within a single setting are stitched together in a manner that testifies to his complete lack of a proper cinematic sensibility that's not just grossly flashy." Grosoli reckons Sorrentino is finally more literary than cinematic and that the director does manage to convey in film form the cinematic equivalent of third-person omniscience. When we mentioned earlier that he has a fondness of still characters and mobile camera movements this would seem to be consistent with this omniscient narration - a camera that moves with a character often indicates instead the third person singular, and we could do worse than look at how filmmakers deviate from this third-person singular norm, well aware that the first person is almost impossible to do well in film, as many commentators have remarked when looking at The Lady in the Lake. But someone who offers so clearly a cinematic omniscience can seem grandiose, and this criticism has often been levelled at Sorrentino. It is indeed there in Grosoli's comment. But there is also in Il Divo an enigma at its centre that is post-war Italian politics. Sorrentino's form manages simultaneously to recognize this enigma and offers paradoxically an omniscience that cannot penetrate it. The final achievement of Sorrentino's film is that he knows his camera can go anywhere, but it cannot penetrate Andreotti's mask. It ends on the third person exasperated.
© Tony McKibbin