Il Divo, which translates as ‘The Divine’, is just one of the nicknames given to Giulio Andreotti, who was Prime Minister of Italy seven times between 1972 and 1992. The others, including ‘The Man of Darkness’, ‘The Black Pope’ and ‘Beelzebub’, give a good indication of Andreotti’s notoriety. Tried on several occasions for murder, corruption and Mafia involvement, he escaped conviction each time due to a lack of evidence. Director Paolo Sorrentino borrows the aesthetics of a crime movie – for example, the Reservoir Dogs-style slow motion shot where, on the day of their appointment, the members of the seventh Andreotti government walk down the corridors of power – but he does not try to uncover the truth behind the accusations; instead, Sorrentino chooses to focus on the cloak of ambiguity that Andreotti wove for himself. This distance between style and content is ironic, and it is central to Sorrentino’s films.
In order to portray a character with Andreotti’s supreme level of self-control, you need an actor of equivalent status. Toni Servillo is that actor. Sorrentino is careful not to judge Andreotti through the development of the plot, but Servillo’s characterisation tells a different story. Before shooting, Sorrentino prepared piles of footage of the real Andreotti for the star of his acclaimed 2004 feature The Consequences of Love, but Servillo chose not to watch it, preferring instead to play the character as written in the script. Servillo portrays Andreotti with remarkable precision through movements so small that they have to be measured in millimetres, conveying Andreotti’s impressive impassivity. This, coupled with his protruding ears, hunchback and long white fingers – all exaggerated characteristics of the real Andreotti – recalls Murnau’s Nosferatu, implying that Sorrentino sees Andreotti as a vampire who fed on the blood of Italy.
In keeping with the ironic style Sorrentino has developed, the formal beauty of the film and the music are often used to undermine the emotion of a scene or to create incongruous contrasts. Framing Andreotti in extremely deep shots, accompanying the images with a cosmopolitan soundtrack that takes in classical, electronica, indie and pop music, Sorrentino uses the cinematography and the score to mock the politician subtly, constantly undercutting his idea of himself and of all the power he has amassed.
Sorrentino has previously said that ‘life is tragic enough and irony is the best antidote’. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that in a film full of actual Andreotti quotations, the most resonant line should be, ‘Irony is the best defence against death’, an Andreotti-style aphorism invented by Sorrentino and delivered by Servillo with a pan so dead it is as if it has been encased in concrete then dropped in the ocean to ‘sleep with the fishes’.