September 4, 2009

Talks the Talk, But …

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Ah, the political biopic: so much opportunity, so much risk.
On the one hand, stories about the powerful offer us a chance to glimpse into the more glorious and grotesque aspects of the human soul — the determination, the fortitude, the vanity (there’s a reason Shakespeare wrote about Hamlet and Henry IV). On the flip side, these films necessarily address matters of public interest — and public record. Tell the tale poorly, and everyone will know.
Such is the trap that Il Divo falls into. Tracing the late career of Guilio Andreotti (Toni Servillo), seven-time prime minister of Italy and permanent fixture in that nation’s psyche, it tries to find a middle path between the grandiosity of the traditional historical narrative (big buildings, big crowds, big speeches) and the sexy coyness of a revamped crime saga (pretty women, prettier cars, big guns). But, despite its occasional flares of aesthetic beauty and quiet contemplation, it fails where it most needs to succeed: in capturing the essence of Andreotti.
In most of the more bizarre interpretations in recent memory, Servillo plays the prime minister as a stand-offish, soul-dead and, above all, creepy septuagenarian. Whatever his outward resemblance to Andreotti — and, it must be noted, the make-up crew has somehow made the actor look even weirder than his subject — Servillo conveys nothing of the imposing presence or air of self-confidence that one would require to lord over a country for decades. Sure, Andreotti may have had a certain mystique; but if the viewer is left wondering at the end of the film how the hell such an anti-social anomaly could have reached such heights of power, then there’s a problem.
In brief, Il Divo follows Andreotti’s failed attempt for the presidency of the republic in 1992 and the lead-up to his later trial for Mafia involvement. As the camera passes through massive government buildings and cramped side streets, tracing both the public and darker, private sides of politics, we are hit over the head with the fact of Andreotti’s stature. Characters attest to his invulnerability; advisers hang on his every word. But what, we wonder, are they marveling at? Could this really be all there is?
The fault lies both with the acting and the screenplay. Servillo does a poor job of convincing us that he’s one of the big men of latter twentieth-century European politics; the writers have a hard time giving us more than a faint glimpse of his inner character (he’s placid and aloof in public, thoughtful and sentimental in private — so what?). By the end of the film, we’re left merely with the fact of the man’s greatness, but no understanding of its nature.
This is not surprising, really, given the attitude that the filmmakers seemed to have adopted here. Their aim was clearly to create a clever, stylish action-drama in the vein of Michael Mann or Steven Soderbergh. But there’s no consistency to the cinematography: At one moment we’re treated to grandiose tracking shots of politicians pandering to the press, the next to a lightning-fast action scene with hints of Tarantino (floating subtitles, oddly incongruent music). Paolo Sorrentino, who directed the film, seems not to have been able to make up his mind just how serious he wanted to be, and his movie oscillates endlessly between presumptuous gravity and tongue-in-cheek caricature. And the finale, cutting out at a pivotal moment, makes one wonder: Does Sorrentino think he’s too cool for endings?
There’s some delight to be had in Il Divo, of course, but this is largely a by-product of its fascinating subject matter (Italian backroom dealings and alleyway executions can never be anything but fun) and its presumably big budget (though they could have used a bit more on the make-up byline: aside from Servillo’s odd get-up, Carlo Buccirosso as Paolo Cirino Pomicino looks like nothing so much as the annoying old dude from those Six Flags commercials). Perhaps it’s easier to judge harshly when one has such high expectations, but on almost every mark — characterization, acting, cinematography — Il Divo misses the ball. A shame: This could have been a great one.