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Il Divo – the extraordinary life of Giulio Andreotti* – an essay

Giulio Andreotti - Il Divo

Giulio Andreotti - Il Divo

Il Divo – Paolo Sorrentino (2008)

Shakespearean in content, operatic in tone, writer director Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo (the extraordinary life of Giulio Andreotti) is a masterly work. Richly textured and at times demanding, Sorrentino’s film is a profound study of power, and its irresistible affects on men who possess it and those drawn to them. Il Divo is also it seems to me deeply Italian – obviously in its actual historic setting in place and time but also its elegant use of the Italian language and finally its philosophical context. The extraordinary enigma that was Giulio Andreotti, in Sorrentino’s sumptuously shot film, walks the imposing halls of the Quirinal Palace redolent with the ghosts of Machiavelli and the Borgias.

Andreotti, now 90, still Senator for life, seven times Prime Minister, dominated Italian politics for over 40 years as head of the centre-right Christian Democratic Party. These were tumultuous years for Europe in general and Italy in particular: Italy’s ‘anni di piombo’ – years of lead. Marxist-inspired dissident groups turned to terrorism to attack established political orthodoxy – in Germany the Baader-Meinhoff Group; and in Italy Mario Moretti’s Brigate Rosse – The Red Brigades – who among other acts of violence, in 1978 kidnapped Andreotti’s one time friend and colleague, and predecessor as Prime Minister – Aldo Moro. Moro was executed 54 days later when Andreotti refused to negotiate and make concessions for his release.

Toni Servillo, unrecognisable from his role as corrupt politician Franco in Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra, is mesmeric as Andreotti. But it is Sorrentino’s direction that puts this perfomance to such powerful use. There can hardly ever have been an outwardly less charismatic figure of power than Andreotti: small, hunch-shouldered, strange flat-to-the-head misshapen ears, a mincing straight-legged walk and an implacably expressionless face where even the eyes were hooded and whose occasional flashes of venom seem to sneak past the rigorous control of their possessor. And yet, Andreotti the man, commanded almost reverential admiration and support – political, personal and electoral. This despite a dry, even cruel intellectual wit turned indifferently upon friend and foe alike. Andreotti the man’s deeply un-prepossessing physical presence makes the way that Servillo and Sorrentino convey so well his power and enigmatic menace a supreme achievement.

Il Divo would be impressive simply as an historical political thriller. Certainly the bald facts of Mafia intrique and murder, serial suicides, political assassination and the constant air of corruption, required little embellishment to create a sense of dramatic tension. But to say that Il Divo is just about Post-war Italian political figures is a little like saying that Shakespeare’s Historical plays are just about the kings and queens of England. With surreal imagery at times reminiscent of Bunuel, and a wonderfully eclectic musical score discarding historical appropriateness in favour of the right tone and atmosphere, Sorrentino conjures on screen for us the elusive spirit of the cipher of a man known variously as the ‘Black Pope’, ‘Hunchback’, Beelzebub’ and the ‘Prince of Darkness’ A man admired and hated in equal measure.

Sorrentino’s Andreotti is like the eye of a hurricane: the calm, even empty epicentre around which powerful forces gather and circulate. However much the hurricane builds or uncontrollable the forces it unleashes, its eye at the centre in a sense remains untouched – but defined by the terrifying forces encircling it. And though there are reasons why the storm moves in this or that direction, we cannot know them or predict its advance. When the storm dissipates, the epicentre disappears, until the conditions for gathering force begin again to re-form another hurricane with its eye at the centre, creating another period of unpredictable destructive power. Unpredictability was one of Andreotti’s great weapons. Revealing so little of his inner thoughts and guided more by a kind of fatalistic pragmatism than anything like a moral or political principle, those around him were reduced to trying to read his mood from tiny scraps of body language: twisting his ring, tapping or inter-lacing his fingers.

Such extraordinary, even counter-intuitive charismatic personal power is as rare as it is unmistakable. And its most extreme examples, like Andreotti, were also unlikely candidates. Hitler was an odd little man with a funny moustache; Stalin though physically big, not much more initially than a stolid peasant. Yet having persuaded people to give them power then wielding it with absolute ruthlessness, they took to themselves the power of life and death which in turn induced in far more people than we like to admit, a sense of reverence and blind loyalty rather than just fear. Despite the proven horrors of their rule, there are an alarming number of Russians and Germans who look upon Stalin and Hitler with admiration and their times with nostalgic regret.

”Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again”.

(Brecht – The Rise and Fall of Arturo Ui)

Andreotti was no Hitler, or a Stalin but he had great power and was directly or indirectly through action or inaction, an instrumental figure in many violent deaths. The fascination of this man is that he seems to refute one of our more comforting beliefs: that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Sorrentino’s film portrays Andreotti as a kind of carrier of disease, able to infect others but symptom-free himself. His devious secretiveness always left it unclear, even to this day, exactly what he did influence and bring about. It’s as if all the appalling events in Shakespeare’s Richard the Third took place but that we never saw him plotting them: the play becoming more a kind of morally ambiguous whodunit than a study in the power of ambition and self-hatred.

It is apt that Servillo is also in Matteo Garrone’s superb Gomorra. In a key moment in Il Divo Servillo delivers a monologue to camera where all the normally repressed passion in Andreotti explodes. His credo roughly: where irreconcilable forces create constant turmoil someone, something must create some form of order, stability, even if he must compromise with those forces in order to do it: order cannot be generated by being just another competing force for that only increases the turmoil and further undermines any possibility of control. In Sorrentino’s film and perhaps true to the man, Andreotti comes over as a kind of conduit for the chaotic interplay of power structures in Italian society at a time of social upheaval in the wider world. One feels his famous remark was perhaps meant seriously not as mock modesty.

“I recognize my limits but when I look around I realise I am not living exactly in a world of giants.”

The Andreotti of Sorrentino’s film is Machiavelli’s ‘Prince’ incarnate. (Niccolo Machiavelli 1469-1527).

From what I understand of the history and the times and the non-judgemental presentation of the man in Sorrentino’s film one can imagine Andreotti saying that when anarchy is abroad, and it was, an irreducibly volatile Italy could only resist through someone like him to channel the uncompromising forces of chaos rather than compete with them. Andreotti tapped the power structures around him, the secret P2 (Propaganda Due) anti-Communist Masonic group within the Christian democrats; assiduously cultivating through personal patronage the goodwill of his ordinary constituency voters; and developing mutually beneficial links with the Catholic Church. If an historically volatile political and social culture and the immensely powerful Church of Rome both the spiritual heart of Italy but also world-wide Catholicism, were two of the competing power structures at the heart of Italian society it was Andreotti’s deeply ambiguous relationship with the third – the Mafia – that threads its way menacingly through Sorrentino’s film.

This is where Garrone’s Gomorra is almost a companion piece to Il Divo. A brilliant, baleful portrayal of the family-based criminal fraternity (the Comorra)in and around Naples in which we see the brutal uncompromising nature of a loosely-knit group of families united by only one thing – a refusal to accept the rule of law in society as a whole and an implacable willingness to use violence to maintain their de facto right to do so. It is a mistake to conflate the Comorra with the Mafia for the former apparently lacks the hierarchical structure for which the latter is infamous. However in trying to understand the reality and thus limitations on political effectiveness Andreotti faced as a politician, Gomorra perfectly illustrates the impossibility of compromise. Il Divo shows us an ultra-pragmatic politician seeing clearly what he would say romantic idealists refused to face – you can’t fight these power structures for they observe no limit and will never stop. So it seems in order to create stability for mainline politics, to get things done, the impression is that Andreotti simply accommodated the Mafia, let them maintain their power as long as it did not create waves. While courageous men and women of the law, Magistrates and Judges rightly battled against the corruption of the Mafia in Italian society, many being murdered for their pains, one can almost imagine Andreotti saying of the Mafia “What can I do? It’s what they do.” He was much criticised for failing to attend the funeral of Judge Giovanni Falcone assassinated by the Mafia in May 1992 depicted through a recurring visual metaphor in Il Divo.

The film suggests this ‘mutual areas of interest’ pragmatism was the only political credo Andreotti followed. Sorrentino represents him as a kind of paradox of power: like the eye of the hurricane he lay at the very heart of power yet was in a sense powerless himself – as the balance of the forces shifted so he had to adapt in order to remain at their heart. This came to a head when the legal arm of government caught and turned ex-Mafia boss Tomasso Buscetta. This success led to the Maxi Trial (1986) which put hundreds of Mafiosi on trial based on Buscetta’s evidence. Almost for the first time, the forces of the law led by Judges Falcone and Paolo Borsellino – both later assassinated – genuinely threatened men at the very top of the Mafia and therefore the centre of the historical power structure it represented. Thus threatened The Mafia had to ask more of Andreotti than he could deliver, actual protective help rather than ‘spheres of self-interest’ passivity. Of course Andreotti could not comply – his whole rationale was to balance such forces not be part of any one of them. Sorrentino shows Andreotti and Corleonesi Mafia boss Salvatore Riina in a symbolic meeting but offers no conversation between the two men. Later Andreotti denies the meeting altogether. Certainly Andreotti later took strong action against the Mafia but it is hard to see how he could have done otherwise given the public uproar at the dramatic assassinations of Magistrates Falcone and Borsellino.

Amidst this socio-political background Sorrentino shows Andreotti somehow constantly shifting and adapting to forces around him in such a way that he remains central. The ultimate pragmatist, accepting good, even necessary results may come from bad actions; and sacrificing any principle to the necessity of political stability.

“In fact, when there is combined under the same constitution a prince, a nobility, and the power of the people, then these three powers will watch and keep each other reciprocally in check”.

(Machiavelli – Discourse on Livy Book I, Chapter II)

It is an extraordinary achievement on Sorentino’s part to have distilled this philosophical and political complexity into a stunning montage of evocative scenes and images. In one superb moment as Andreotti crosses a massive room in the Quirinal, armed guards silently watching, a cat appears in his path. Andreotti just stops and he and the cat stare each other out. You can feel the anxiety of the guards, unsure whether to intervene. In a battle of wills with the cat it is clear it will move out of the way, either by its own or volition or because Andreotti’s expectation will force the guards to intervene. In the end the cat skulks off and Andreotti carries on his way. This beautiful little scene captures a curious mixture of comic menace, a kind of sinister absurdity. The sheer motive force of Andreotti’s presence brings about the results he wants without his actually doing anything. If Andreotti was instrumental in mens’ deaths and Sorrentino suggests he was – this is how he brought it about.

Andreotti was tried twice, found guilty once and then subsequently acquitted of all charges on grounds of lack of proof. He exemplified the seemingly inherent paradox of Italian politics; large numbers of people even an electoral majority, are drawn to the stability that strong, ruthless men can generate and they are indulgent towards the perhaps extra-legal or plain illegal pragmatism with which they bring about that stability. If that sounds familiar today we should remember that one Silvio Berlusconi was once a member of an Andreotti Government and Propaganda Due). Even in England large numbers of Londoners look back with some affection to the days when the Kray twins created a kind of orderly tyranny in the poorest parts of the East End.

With Gomorra and Il Divo it has been a good year for Italian cinema. One feels there is another great Italian film just begging to be made: having focussed on two of the three major centres of power in Italian society, the third awaits the same rigour, incisive examination and courageous clarity. The Roman Catholic Church despite its deeply spiritual core is itself profoundly Machiavellian in spirit. Notoriously the Church of Rome, immensely powerful and rich, can often be argued to put its temporal continuity above its stated spiritual mission. And the rationale is strikingly familiar – without the structure and stability that The Church offers in a world of chaos and sin – then goodness has no room to grow. Thus the continuity and stability of the Church itself becomes the moral imperative that pre-dominates over individual ethics.

The role of the Catholic Church both in relation to the Mafia, political intrigue and endemic corruption in public life has been opaque at best for centuries. When one sees these immensely powerful groupings at the heart of Italian society, in many ways with nothing but preserving their base of power in common, one can begin to understand why Italy over one 40 year period had more than 40 governments – some, like one of Andreotti’s lasting just two weeks.

Challenging, demanding, eloquent, visually innovative and absorbing, Il Divo justly deserved its jury prize at Cannes in 2008. It is a film that rewards more than one viewing, for its richly textured conception takes time to absorb. Together with Gomorra, Il Divo is profoundly Italian. It would perhaps need an Italian Bunuel to complete the trilogy that beckons. But the history of men who have taken on the Catholic Church is perhaps even more disturbing than those who have like Sorrentino and Garrone courageously tackled the unpalatable truths of Italian politics and ‘organised’ crime.

*(Sometimes called Divo Giulio (from Latin Divus Iulius, “divine Julius”, an epithet of Julius Caesar)

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