Most movie critics are more concerned with film than with life, but my goal has been to help make movies, those pungent yet unreliable distillations of life, more compelling for the reader who is more interested in the world than in the cinema.
Consider “Il Divo,” a baroquely stylized biopic about Giulio Andreotti, seven times Prime Minister of Italy in the 1972-1992 era, and then a perpetual defendant in murder and Mafia trials in 1993-2003. Paolo Sorrentino’s “Il Divo” is clearly a film of aesthetic ambitions (the owlish politician inhabits a De Chirico Italy of sinisterly empty arcaded streets) and some historical significance.
Still, the labyrinthine “Il Divo” would be impenetrable to any American who hasn’t read up on Italy’s lurid recent past, in which Andreotti’s rival, ex-Prime Minister Aldo Moro, was kidnapped and murdered by the Red Brigades, various Vatican-connected bankers died in fashions that would have amused the Borgias, a Masonic lodge served as a seeming government-in-waiting for a post-coup Italy, and brave magistrates investigating the Mafia blew up.
Italian politics, with its constantly collapsing governments, strikes Americans as a joke. Yet, the fundamental questions of Italy’s Cold War years were deadly serious: Would the unruly joys of Italian daily life succumb to the grayness of a Communist state, the Cuban tragedy writ large? Yet, just how many Machiavellian machinations in the name of saving Italy from the Reds could be borne?
As “Il Divo” demonstrates, Italy apparently needed to be led during those difficult decades by the least operatic politician imaginable, and can only now afford to revert to more stereotypically Italian showboats such as Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Like a more cultivated, less bumptious version of the Daleys who have ruled Chicago for 41 of the last 54 years, Il Divo is not a diva. Andreotti doesn’t bluster from balconies, nor even bother to cut a stylish figure. He listens carefully, forgets nothing, and confines his own utterances to mordant witticisms: as if Dr. Evil were underplayed by Jack Benny.
Margaret Thatcher reminisced about Andreotti, “He seemed to have a positive aversion to principle, even a conviction that a man of principle was doomed to be a figure of fun.” “Il Divo’s” nightmarish depiction of Italian politics raises an unsettling point. In Andreotti’s defense, he at least was born into his system, while America is now led by a man who, with every opportunity in the world beckoning, carefully chose to make his career in our closest equivalent: Chicago politics.
May 7, 2009
Here's an excerpt from my review in The American Conservative: