Il Divo in the context of Italian political cinema

“We are very different. You are not my son, you are not my nephew. But you are a very good director.” [1] Upon seeing Sorrentino’s 2008 masterpiece, Il Divo, Francesco Rosi, one of the pioneering forefathers of the Italian school of cinema d’impegno civile – a brand of political cinema which promoted civic engagement and aimed to agitate the political sentiment of viewers, was at pains to convey to Sorrentino that, while he greatly esteemed his work, Rosi perceived him as separate from the canon of Italian political cinema of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Yet Rosi’s thinking is increasing being re-evaluated by many critics, who are quick to draw parallels between Il Divo, and its antecedents of the Italian cinema of the 60s to the 80s, citing the encouragement offered for civic engagement, the treatment of historical memory, and the profound analysis of an erstwhile era of politics – in the 1970s most commonly that of fascism, but in Il Divo, the Christian Democratic party. It appears that neither party – Rosi nor a vast array of film critics – should be totally mistaken in their conclusions. Whilst there are ostensibly a great deal of commonplaces with the political cinema of the 1970s, such as the revisiting of recent political history, the focus on psychoanalysis, and the objectives of the directors to ignite a degree of political curiosity in the hearts of the spectators, there are at the same time differences in style, which prevent Il Divo from being immediately incorporated into the political cinematographic canon of the 1970s.

For the purposes of this exercise, it seems opportune to focus on Bertolucci’s Il Conformista in dialogue with Il Divo in order to ascertain the similarities and differences between the two, and to place Il Divo within its historic context. The study of the recent past – in both cases the analysis of a political era roughly a generation ago, would be an obvious starting point for ascertaining whether Sorrentino’s film should be declared part of this body of film, in particular the study of organised crime. Whilst Il Conformista looks at some of the more nefarious elements of the fascist era, tracing the journey of Marcello under the watchful eye of Mangianello, in an attempt to track down and murder Quadri, his former professor living in exile who is a prominent antifascist, so too does Il Divo focus on egregious instances of organised crime in the recent past, most specifically looking at the Mafia and Andreotti’s alleged relationship with many of their grandees. These scenes are both conducted in a remarkably similar manner. For instance, upon visiting Quadri in Paris, we see a ling journey followed by a curious meeting in his dimly lit study.

Likewise, when Andreotti goes to see Riina in Sicily – who is a Mafia boss – the ritualistic formality with which he does so is very similar. There are also, perhaps, homosexual undertones to both meetings. One notes for example the kiss which the two men exchange in Il Divo, and likewise the meeting in the darkened, private interior space between Quadri and Clerici in Il Conformista. Consequently, the subplot of illicit actions in both is a similar way in which the shady memories of the recent and problematic historical past is treated in both, prompting similarities to be drawn. Moreover, the aims of both directors, according to interviews conducted both by Bertolucci and by Sorrentino are similar and would seem to suggest that it would not be unreasonable to include Il Divo within the earlier corpus of Italian political cinema. In both cases, the directors were at pains to demonstrate that a key reason for their reviewing the recent past and incorporating political scandal of the generation which had just elapsed was in order to illuminate the fact that many of the corrupt elements of the Italian government had remained in place. Bertolucci replied, when asked whether he thought that Il Conformista was a film pertinent for contemporaneous viewers that “yes! That is why I say [it] is a film for the present.”[2] He also adds that “although the world has changed, feelings have remained the same.”[3] These statements come against a backdrop of intellectual dissidence against the political status quo: antifascism. It was beginning to be reconsidered, by a variety of academics, that actually a lot of the judicial and administrative equipment and personnel which characterized the antifascist era, was in fact no different to that of the fascist era.

This school of thought is continued in Il Divo, as Sorrentino, in an interview with Cineaste voices a striking similar opinion on the state of contemporary Italian politics. He says that “while the government of Berlusconi is very different to that of Andreotti, the method of government is the same.”[4] Sorrentino says in the same interview that, whilst it is not necessary to have a full comprehension of Italian politics to take away many of the key messages from this film, he hoped to engage young people and alert them to the problematic aspects of government that had not been changed. As a result, we can see a further parallel between Il Divo and the established canon of Italian cinema d’impegno civile. The directors are both keen to convey a very similar message: while the Italian governmental personnel may evolve over the course of the years (although not necessarily – given that Il Divo focuses on Andreotti’s life solely between 1990 and 1992, yet he was in fact involved with the Christian Democratic party in some guise from 1946), the administrative procedures and mechanisms of the Italian governments are something which will remain more or less constant. This constancy is painted in an unfavorable light, given the frequent allusions towards the corruption practiced by Andreotti.

Although these films do have many similarities in terms of content, and to some extent in terms of treatment of the recent past and its impact upon the present political situation, the manner in which Il Divo treats historical veracity is not always in keeping with the treatment of historical fidelity which is seen in other films in this corpus. The referential language of Il Divo, which is characterized by a vast array of montages and filmic signs which frequently hint at the culpability of the protagonist Andreotti, is not at all similar to that of Il Conformista, or in fact many similar films from the cinema d’impegno era in the 1970s. A very striking feature of Il Divo is the wide range of virtuosic cinematographic techniques employed by Sorrentino, aimed at framing Andreotti as an all but culpable figure in many of his alleged crimes. The use of crosscutting is particularly efficacious at achieving this outcome. We note, for instance, that Andreotti is, like Attlee, an opaque figure in his personal life. This message is made abundantly clear to use by Sorrentino’s introduction of him in near total darkness, as he explains the severe headaches he has always suffered. Yet, Sorrentino does not allow him to live this reserved personal existence in his film, as he is constantly questioning the actions which he is alleged to have taken. For instance, the death of Falcone is something which the viewer is called to question Andreotti for, through the referential language chosen by Sorrentino. The crosscut between the burning car falling, and the somber minute of silence held in parliament for instance foregrounds culpability. In addition, when we see the men discussing the importance of keeping eyes fixed in Andreotti, subliminally conveys to the viewer that Andreotti should be seen as a figure of culpability – one to be foregrounded rather than one who can lurk in the shadows, as he appears to want to do in his personal life. This is especially the case when one analyses the following montage. After a short reflection about his personal life, when Andreotti’s interior monologue is privileged and we hear about the times in his life when he has cried, we then cut to two corpses, one in a field and a travelling shot of a man who has hanged himself, before switching over to an interview with Andreotti, where the journalist quizzes him about recent suicides. This treatment of historical veracity is rather different to Il Conformista. Whereas in Bertolucci’s film, it is never anything except evident that the protagonist is guilty for attempting to murder the professor because he is an antifascist living in exile, Andreotti is in fact a politician who was acquitted of many of the charges levelled against him. As such, Il Divo appears to be far more controversial, both stylistically and in the manner in which it treats the fidelity of history.

As a result, whilst in many ways it would not be unreasonable to place Il Divo within the context of Italian political cinema generally, given the content, the focus on recent history, and the critique of the unchanging government methods of administration, when one considers the way in which the recent past is treated, Il Divo begins to look somewhat different. It is not merely a political exposé, but a highly controversial account of an equally controversial, although acquitted, politician. Thus, the treatment of historical memory, which is played with polemically by Sorrentino through a great variety of virtuosic stylistic techniques, is not entirely in keeping with the Italian political cinema of the post- 68 era.