Ever wonder what a Kubrick film would look like if he had gone to Italy instead of the UK during his self-imposed artistic exile from his native soil? No? Really? Never? Well me neither. Yet here is the answer to that very question. It is Il Divo. Brash and bold, with smooth, sharp lines of auteuristic demarcation, Paolo Sorrentino's swaggering biopic of Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti - a figure equally brash and bold, with smooth, sharp lines of auteuristic demarcation - is what iconic film critic Andrew Sarris might have called strained seriousness in his equally iconic The American Cinema. Sarris clearly meant this as cheeky rebuke of directors he considered pretentious and uneven (and perhaps Sorrentino is at least one of these things), but here I use it as back-handed compliment. If you ever wondered what strained seriousness looked like, well here it is - in spades.
Spades it is. Filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino has concocted one of the most bizarrely satisfying biopics in many a year. Il Divo goes so far over the top as to no longer even be in the same stratosphere as the typical biopic. You know the biopic - that generic genre which inundates the multiplex circuit every Oscar season with its tired flacidity. Yet never does the film fly out of control as would be so easy to do under such bravura circumstances. Sorrentino wraps his movie together with a brazen audacity that is part cinematic chutzpah, part artistic arrogance and part reverent character study. Not since Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette a few years ago, has a biopic captured and enraptured its subject and their times as well as Sorrentino's Il Divo does. Unashamed and cocksure, Il Divo flows with a calibrated yet puckish cool - an impudent moxie if you will - usually reserved for the films of Tarantino or the aforementioned Kubrick. Perhaps Il Divo never really meets the highest merits of such filmmaking luminaries as these, but still it is here where Sorrentino joins the ranks of strained seriousness (Sarris' superciliousness aside) with this blastiest of blasts.
Yet while riffing on its good looks as a bacchanalia of biopictury (just like Coppola's Antoinette, Sorrentino's Il Divo, in many ways, acts as decadent yet savvy political satire a la Caligula) it is - as is nearly always the case with such a genre - the star of the film who can make or break the day - and the bank. Portraying the crux figurehead of Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti is an actor by the name of Toni Servillo - and he makes the bank and the day. He was last seen as the maniacally businesslike Franco in Matteo Garrone's brilliantly deranged mafioso chronicle Gomorrah. Now the actor has transformed himself into the mugwumpy hunchbacked creature that we see before us in Il Divo. And an amazing transformation it is. Servillo's pugnacious portrayal of the man who did for Italy what Nixon did for the US (or was that Bush?) is the perfect compliment to Sorrentino's loudly bulldozerish biopic. A creature of the night for his feature of the right. Strained seriousness indeed. [09/23/09]