On Monday, I saw Paolo Sorrentino’s film about Giulio Andreotti, Il Divo at the ICA. It’s a scorching brilliant sensation, full value for its Prix du Jury, and I strongly recommend you see it at once.
The first thing you need to know is that this is a movie; a lot of directors, faced with a heavy political biography and a crisis that needs explaining, would have ended up with a hell of a lot of people talking a lot in moodily lit offices or speechifying in parliament. But the historic genius of Italian cinema is that it’s always been able to deal in serious subjects by looking good, and Sorrentino’s direction makes the whole thing look fantastic and practically thrum with energy.
There is one of the best depictions of the sport of politics anywhere, as Andreotti attempts to be elected President of the Republic and the camera tracks with his finance minister, (Paolo Cirino Pomicino, played by Carlo Buccirosso) for an unfeasible period of time as he schmoozes, threatens, and argues his way around MP after MP.
A string of mafia assassinations are shocking and hyper-real; there is a lot of really bad violence in films, the sort of ketchup-CGI-unfeasible car wreck fluff where it is not clear whether it is more boring or more desensitising, and only a few manage to get the shock and horror of it. My reference point for this is the fist-fighting in Once Were Warriors, which is far more shocking than any amount of car-off-viaduct; this is similarly classy. Note that Sorrentino has to deal with the most hackneyed piece of “action” available, an actual car blowing up, in the Mafia murder of Giovanni Falcone, and handles it well.
The look-and-feel gives us some important clues; Andreotti, played superbly by Toni Servillo, is sinisterly out of place in parliament or in the streets, surrounded by his escort of hochglanzed Fiats and whipsmart security agents in sharp suits and sharper machine pistols, but perfectly at home in the sick, stuffed baroque corridors of power, where his colleagues never quite fit in either. They would rather be in public, in the 20th century; when one of them appears for a meeting with both a Motorola NMT brick of a mobile phone and a VHF radio, he might as well have brought a sharpened flint to a genetics lab. But you could overdo this – by the time Andreotti is facing trial, he can be spotted briefly speaking on one of the new GSM phones, just as the reporters type in unison on a gaggle of laptops.
Servillo’s performance is a wonder; he plays Andreotti as an entirely physical being, an odd idea for an old politico who is barely seen outside the corridors of power, and who answers his doctor’s suggestion that he exercise by saying that everyone he knew who did was dead. But the only signs he gives of inner life or emotion are physical – rather than feelings, he has migraines. He’s a classic hysteric, so deeply repressed that his emotions are only expressed as psychosomatic, not to say diplomatic illnesses.
In fact, his whole family are like that; there is a scene of the whole clan taking pills together before eating, as if to relieve a common headache brought on by ignoring common secrets. Interestingly, Carlo Buccirosso’s character nods to this unphysical physicality early on – in a party scene, he motionlessly listens to Andreotti holding court, until Livia Andreotti announces that it’s her husband’s bedtime. Demonstrating a proper submission to his wife, Andreotti departs. No longer on his best behaviour, the Minister of the Budget dances wildly and very unlike any finance minister is meant to as the camera frantically tracks him.
Time, and secrets; the depths of history are as important to the film as the depths of space and time to, say, Lovecraft. There are unimaginable, mind-wrecking horrors lurking in there, in the files in Andreotti’s private archives (he significantly remarks that an imagination is one thing, but an archive is much better), and he’s one of them. Charlie Stross used the toolkit of horror to write about the Cold War, and of course Andreotti is a product of the same conflict, having spent his life keeping the Communists out of government and Italy in NATO, whatever it took.
There is a theory that the sudden wave of honesty that ripped through several great European political parties in the 90s – the Christian Democrats in Italy, the network around Mitterand in France, the British Conservatives, Kohl’s CDU – was a reaction to the end of the Cold War. Suddenly, it was no longer true that any deceit, any crime would be better than the worst-case scenario to end all worst-case scenarios, and up it all came. The eruption was most powerful and most sensational in Italy, and one of its consequences was that Andreotti’s calculations were no longer valid, perhaps precisely because it was fundamentally psychological; he couldn’t feel it.
The closest character in the rest of the cinema to Servillo’s Andreotti is undoubtedly HAL, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And come to think of it, HAL is another Cold War product, eventually brought down by the duplicity inherent in its need-to-know protocols. This science-fictional reading is explicitly hinted at during the trial towards the end of the film, when a journalist describes Andreotti as an extra-terrestrial. That is precisely what he isn’t, of course – in fact, he’s a formidable artificial intelligence, hyper-rational, inscrutable, amoral, realistic, terrifying.
Intelligent he is, but artificial? Certainly. There is a sense in which self-control, self-discipline, and pathological repression aren’t that far apart. Andreotti’s constant psychosomatic disorders are the manifestations of a man whose life’s work has been to convert himself into a computer, an expert system, a walking simulation of Italian politics that can resolve the answer to any question about it in faster-than-real time. He is, indeed, an artificial intelligence, and just as imperfect and dangerous as you’d expect from an experiment in human-equivalent AI left to survive in politics.