Prince of darkness

Film still for Prince of darkness

A portrait of former Italian leader Giulio Andreotti, Il Divo skilfully combines investigative journalism with surreal flights of fancy. Guido Bonsaver talks to director Paolo Sorrentino

When Il Divo won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year, it confirmed Paolo Sorrentino as the most promising Italian director of his generation. And the film itself is a confirmation of Sorrentino's individual brand of film-making, which combines an ambiguous male protagonist (regularly embodied by actor Toni Servillo), sophisticated mise en scène and detailed auteurist devotion to the whole creative process.

His stunning directorial debut One Man Up (L'uomo in più, 2001) did not reach a wider public because of the premature death of its producer, Kermit Smith. By then, Sorrentino was already an experienced scriptwriter and his parallel stories of an injured footballer and a drug-addicted singer were brought to the screen with great aplomb. With The Consequences of Love (Le conseguenze dell'amore, 2004), which traces the last steps of a lonely banker working for the Mafia, Sorrentino added box-office success to critical praise.

Two years later, it was the turn of Berlusconian Italy to have its soft underbelly exposed. In The Family Friend (L'amico di famiglia, 2006), Sorrentino told the story of a money lender who gets his own back on a world of apparent wealth and beauty from which his deformed body excludes him. It is only in the characterisation of women that one might find a certain lack of introspection on Sorrentino's part. But in his case consideration of character and narrative should always be preceded by discussion of the overall visual impact of his films, which brings to mind such virtuoso film-makers as Almodóvar and Tarantino. Add to this a dreamlike surrealism and the spectre of Fellini starts to manifest itself. Sorrentino may not embrace Fellini's autobiographical obsessions, but stylistically there is a clear affinity between the two.

What nobody could have foreseen is that Sorrentino's fourth film, Il Divo, would be devoted to the opaque world of Italian politics. Italian cinema has a tradition of groundbreaking political films from the hands of directors such as Francesco Rosi and Elio Petri. Sorrentino therefore confronts a well defined set of expectations. But his film is an original blend of three contrasting styles. While a welter of factual information, partly presented via CGI-animated captions, gives investigative journalistic weight to the narrative, the film retains the slightly oneiric, surreal atmosphere of his previous work. On top of that, the more violent scenes are shot in a fast-paced, musically rich style reminiscent of spectacular action films of a much less serious type. The successful melding of such disparate elements into one coherent and aesthetically pleasing film is confirmation of Sorrentino's unique talent.

The director's attitude towards his subject, Italian politician and former prime minister Giulio Andreotti, is a more complex matter. Still alive and active at the age of 90, Andreotti is one of the most powerful and cryptic figures in modern Italian history. A major player in the Christian Democrat Party that ruled Italy from 1946 to 1992 without interruption, Andreotti was and still is a baffling politician, praised by many for his intellectual acumen and diplomatic restraint, demonised by others as a symbol of the Christian Democrats' quiet connivance with the Mafia, with anti-communist radicals inside and outside Italy, and with any legal and illegal force that could bring water to their electoral mill.

In his biopic, Sorrentino does not mince his words and images. Even though no magistrate has ever been able to tie Andreotti down to a prison sentence, the film demonstrates through sheer accumulation of examples the politician's involvement in some of the darkest and most tragic chapters of Italy's recent history. Questions remain open: how close was Andreotti to the powerful Masonic lodge that planned to push Italy towards a soft dictatorship in the early 1980s? Did Andreotti really meet and kiss Mafia boss Totò Riina? Was the murder of magistrates meant to cover up the links between Andreotti's henchmen and the Mafia? Has Andreotti been working for the good of the Italian nation or is he some sinister, Machiavellian embodiment of power?

Guido Bonsaver: Your previous films have shown no interest in politics. So why concentrate on one of the most cryptic and controversial figures of post-war Italy?

Paolo Sorrentino: A common trait in all my films is the study of relationships of power among individuals. With politics you get to the very core of the matter. And Andreotti offered a great object of study. I am also attracted by self-referential worlds. In the past it was the world of football and music first, then the Mafia. This time I chose politics, which is a world that we mainly know through what the media tell us. Instead I tried to get behind the scenes. As for Andreotti, as a politician he sums up all the characteristics that, to me, make a worthy character for a film: a mixture of mystery, ambiguity and contradiction. In Andreotti, the degree of contradiction is very high. Let's not forget that this is a person whose decisions impacted on an entire country.

GB: Some critics have condemned you for adopting too strong an accusatory tone.

PS: I don't entirely agree. The film is based on historical truths derived from a number of prosecutions by the judiciary. Andreotti was taken to court something like 35 times. I also highlighted more positive traits of the man. For example, his extreme sensitivity towards the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro [the former Italian prime minister kidnapped by the Red Brigades in 1978] is something he didn't actually show when I met him. But I imagined that there were true sentiments hiding behind his cold demeanour. The film tells the story of a man whose life is made of light and shadow. But it's the same for everybody, and I didn't focus solely on his dark side. During the film's timespan, Andreotti was accused of a number of things and I couldn't avoid mentioning them. Also there is no doubt that it was more exciting to do that than concentrate on his achievements in more orthodox territories - say, in foreign policy.

GB: Il Divo contains a blend of very different styles. Did you have any models for this combination?

PS: I didn't watch anything because I thought, perhaps pretentiously, that I could develop my own prototype. I was confronting a genre - the political film - that has illustrious predecessors in Italy. I sought to avoid producing an ugly caricature. But surely there are debts here towards directors I love, such as Petri and Rosi, but also Fellini, Scorsese, perhaps even Tarantino - although I find some of his stuff awesome and some I just can't stand.

GB: Your cinema is renowned for its impressive mise en scène and camera movements. How much are they an integral part of the scriptwriting stage?

PS: Everything is planned during the writing stage. Once the script is ready I immediately move on to a storyboard. Everything is predetermined, to the point that when searching for the right location I often have difficulties finding a place that matches my imagination. But it's an approach that suits me; doing a lot of work before the shooting allows me to concentrate on other aspects once I'm there.

GB: Your use of music is also distinctive.

PS: Music plays an important part in my life. I always choose pieces from among the music I love. Sometimes the script evokes a certain music, sometimes it's the other way round: music has helped me concentrate on the writing of a particular scene and at that point it becomes natural for me to adopt it for the film. I don't like the custom of having a composer write the entire soundtrack. A film produces too varied a spectrum of emotions to be interpreted by just one composer.

GB: Is it true that on set you called Il Divo a rock opera?

PS: Yes, although The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not exactly my style. But I've always thought that, in order to bring the opaque, boring politics of the Christian Democrats to the screen, one had to make full use of what cinema can offer. I wanted to make a spectacular film.

GB: How did you and actor Toni Servillo approach the characterisation of Andreotti?

PS: Before shooting, I prepared a lot of documentary material on Andreotti and I was expecting Servillo to watch it carefully. Instead he refused. He only watched some footage showing Andreotti's bizarre way of walking backwards without turning his head. But I had total faith in Servillo. That's why I'm always happy to work with him.

We spent a lot of time over the make-up, though. A great model for me was Stephen Frears' The Queen. In that film Helen Mirren is Helen Mirren and the queen at the same time: it's a process that works by assonance, not similarity. That's what I wanted to do. Once we achieved our result, it was interesting to note that, after each make-up session, Servillo communicated such an image of power that even the crew, who normally joked with him, became much more reverential.

GB: Isn't there something of Nosferatu about Andreotti?

PS: That's part of Andreotti's own image. I kept telling myself I had to avoid falling into the Nosferatu trap, but when I went to meet him in his office it was a Sunday morning, a memorable sunny day, and he was in the darkness of his house, with all the shutters closed. And what he said pointed straight towards a Nosferatu image: he was telling me how every morning he gets up at four and goes for a walk when it is still dark. In the end I simply followed this line.

GB: When you met him, did he know he was going to be at the centre of your film?

PS: At the time I was still working on an initial idea. I just wanted to get to know him personally and let him know of my project. We met twice, but I had the impression that he didn't really believe anybody could do a film about him.

GB: There's a key sentence in the film during Andreotti's final monologue: "One needs to be evil in order to defend what's good." Where did such strong words come from?

PS: I framed that monologue in a theatrically nightmarish sequence because it is the only moment when I dared to express my own viewpoint. Everybody has an opinion on Andreotti, so I thought that it would have been hypocritical not to reveal my own feelings about such an important topic. That's the sequence that particularly annoyed Andreotti when he watched the film.

GB: Can I ask you about some aspects of your technique? For example, the arrival of Andreotti's collaborators, at the beginning, forms a long scene dominated by the use of slow motion and the eerie sound of a mysterious whistle. Where did that the idea come from?

PS: I always imagined that scene in slow motion - that's how it appeared in the script and indeed everything was shot in slow motion. As for the music, initially I envisaged funky rock that mocked these self-important characters. But it didn't work. Eventually I understood that the images needed to be cooled down. I thought I'd concentrate on the footsteps. Then the idea of a whistle just came to my mind. I finalised that scene only a month before the film went to Cannes.

GB: What about your use of computer graphics? I'm particularly thinking of the floating captions that materialise whenever new characters appear on screen.

PS: I'm a neophyte when it comes to digital technology. This is the first time I've used it. I've never been keen on the idea of rubrics on the screen, but they were necessary in this film so I tried to find an original way of introducing them.

GB: Will you make more use of digital technology?

PS: I confess I am fairly reactionary when it comes to this. I grew up with a certain kind of cinema, so I tend to be as frugal as possible when using special effects. I can see how an 18-year-old can get all excited about digital technology. Somehow I'm already too old for it.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012