Paolo Sorrentino, Il Divo
If Paolo Sorrentino represents the future of Italian cinema, then the country’s filmic output certainly should be exciting in years to come. The highly accomplished writer-director was born in Naples in 1970, and first became involved in filmmaking in the mid-90s when he was an assistant director on a couple of films, The Gas Inspector and Drogheria (both 1995). Finding himself poorly suited to production work, Sorrentino transitioned into screenwriting, jointly penning Polveri di Napoli with the film’s director Antonio Capuano in 1998. The same year, he wrote and directed the short L’amore non ha confini, and in 2001 he made his feature debut as writer-director with One Man Up, a comedy drama about the parallel lives of two Neapolitan men with the same name. The film starred the revered Italian actor Toni Servillo, who also played the lead in Sorrentino’s second movie, The Consequences of Love (2004), a poignant crime drama about a lonely Mafia accountant which was a critical hit and gave Sorrentino an international profile. In 2006, he followed up with The Family Friend, about a loan shark who becomes obsessed with a client’s daughter, and also made his acting debut with a cameo role in Nanni Moretti’s The Caiman.
Sorrentino teams up with Toni Servillo for the third time in his latest picture, Il Divo, in which Servillo plays Giulio Andreotti, a titan of Italian politics who was the country’s prime minister seven times during his long career in government. Andreotti is a figure loved and hated in equal measure who allegedly had close links with the Vatican, the Cosa Nostra and the fascist masonic lodge P2, has been given numerous nicknames (including Moloch, Beelzebub, The Black Pope and, yes, Il Divo), and yet remains enigmatic and essentially unknown. Rather than producing a dry biopic of this sphinx-like statesman, Sorrentino has made Il Divo as extravagant as Andreotti is restrained, fashioning a “rock opera” (as he calls it) about Italian politics’ great superstar. This intoxicatingly cinematic movie employs bold colors, flashy captions and slow motion shots aplenty, along with anachronistic pop numbers, to bring the theatricality and lavish grandeur of Andreotti’s world to life at every possible moment. Crucially, however, its spectacle is offset by Sorrentino’s inventive and insightful script which mixes fact, conjecture and fiction in its attempts to reveal the essence of this fascinatingly inscrutable man.
Filmmaker spoke to Sorrentino about his desire to tell Andreotti’s story, the film’s stunning stylistic aspects, and his dream of directing a Bond movie.
Filmmaker: How long have you been interested in Giulio Andreotti?
Sorrentino: I have always been interested in him. I had an idea to make a film about him when I was 20 or so, but it was impossible when I was 20 years old. I did a short film about him then, but I didn’t finish it. So it’s a very old idea to make a film about him.
Filmmaker: When you were growing up in Italy, what was your consciousness of Andreotti?
Sorrentino: In Italy, for all of us he was the most important Italian person and the most known Italian person abroad. Everybody knew him. I had an idea that he looked like my old aunt. We always spoke about him, and my father said it was incredible how similar they were to each other. She wasn’t very beautiful…
Filmmaker: It’s such a paradox that Andreotti is such a shadowy, enigmatic figure who is simultaneously very famous and an unknown quantity.
Sorrentino: Yeah, yeah, all things about him are very close to paradox because everything in him is double. A lot of people love him and a lot of people hate him and he has the ability to be very popular and but at the same time is very reserved and very snobbish. There are a lot of examples of this kind of thing. He is a complex phenomenon and it’s not easy to understand the reasons for his success. Actually in the film I don’t reveal these reasons, but most important is this strange thing that he is very mysterious and his actions are never clear, but at the same time other people voted for him. It’s not healthy for a democracy. It’s just not the Italian people – this happens in a lot of countries.
Filmmaker: You said that you’d first had the idea for an Andreotti film when you were 20, so had you kept thinking about it from that point on? Did you have clear ideas about how you were going to tackle his story?
Sorrentino: In truth, in these past 20 years I have always censored myself about this project because I always believed that it was impossible to do. And I was not far from the truth because when I tried to do the film, nobody wanted to finance it. So just two or three years ago when I started to write the script, I studied him seriously and I decided to tackle him.
Filmmaker: How much research did you do and what resources did you have access to? In the film we see the massive Andreotti archives and hear about the diary he kept.
Sorrentino: It was impossible to get access to the archives then, although now it’s possible. He donated his archives to a foundation, but before that I believe that he removed some things. He always used his archives against his enemies: any time that somebody was against him, he told the newspapers “I have archives where I can [dig up something on] this person.” It was a kind of threat for everybody, but a lot of people believed there wasn’t anything in the archives, that it was a fake. Sorry, I’ve forgotten the question…
Filmmaker: I asked about the research you did on Andreotti.
Sorrentino: I did research on him for a year and then I was tired. At the end of this year I knew a lot of things and the knowledge of many things is dangerous for the imagination, so I stopped the research. I did research in books, read articles in newspapers and then I met some people who, in the passing of time, met him.
Filmmaker: Why did you choose to focus on this period of his life in particular?
Sorrentino: Because I think it’s an interesting period in his biography because it was a moment of transition for him as he crossed from success to decay. It’s always interesting for me as a spectator of cinema to see decay of people, how people become weak when before they were strong. At the same time, the 90s is a period that’s less known in Italy and less documented in cinema.
Filmmaker: The film is so incredibly rich in its visuals. After doing a year of research, was it very clear to you how you would tackle the film stylistically?
Sorrentino: For Italians, Andreotti is a sort of pop icon so I approached the movie like a movie about Iggy Pop and tried to make a sort of rock opera about a man who’s very close to that world – because he’s very popular – but, at the same time. for style and for culture, is very far from the rock world. I was scared to do a classical biopic that could be boring.
Filmmaker: How did people respond to the rock opera idea? Was your unconventional approach one of the reasons you struggled to get funding?
Sorrentino: No, really the problem with financing wasn’t about that. They were excited about the script but they were a little bit concerned about the possibility of having enemies in the world by doing this kind of film.
Filmmaker: Is Andreotti still seen as somebody powerful to be feared?
Sorrentino: Some people believe that he is a powerful man now, but really he is not. But he was powerful for 40 years and he has a lot of friends that respect him. A lot of his friends work in the world of cinema, and they don’t want to be disrespectful.
Filmmaker: Going back to the visuals, every shot is beautiful and seems very carefully composed. Did you storyboard a lot of the film and how much time to you spend planning shots?
Sorrentino: I spent a lot of time planning. After I wrote the script, I started to make the storyboard and at the same time I scouted locations, and I did new storyboards after I found the locations.
Filmmaker: What kind of influences did you have for the look of the film?
Sorrentino: There are influences, but they weren’t conscious. Elio Petri is a director that impresses me a lot, and I like Fellini and Scorsese too and I think they are serious influences for this movie.
Filmmaker: The subtitle for the movie is “The Spectacular Life of Giulio Andreotti” and the film seems to be very much about spectacle: it’s operatic, theatrical and grandiose.
Sorrentino: It’s pretty realistic. He was very defining for us, and it’s the idea that we have about him so I put the idea in the movie. And with the subtitle, “The Spectacular Life…” is a little bit ironic because his life is so spectacular. The context is spectacular, the background: the 70s and the 90s are periods full of murders and deep changes in Italian society and it’s a spectacular moment.
Filmmaker: But there seems to be a conflict between the quiet restraint of the central character and the bold color, the grand scale and the vibrant pop music of the film. They are opposites, almost.
Sorrentino: One of the reasons for doing this film was the contrast between him – very quiet, very subdued – and the idea that the world around him was very chaotic and dynamic. I thought it was interesting to capture this contrast between him, who is static and decides thing without doing anything, and the world that moves very quickly.
Filmmaker: You said before that people were worried about offending or upsetting Andreotti, but in the film you liberally mix fact with conjecture and fantasy, with the lines sometimes blurred between these things.
Sorrentino: With his public life and the trials, I was very close to the official acts and public documents because I was scared to be sued. [laughs] With his private life, I invented a lot of things because it’s very difficult to have access to [that information]. It’s interesting because when he watched the film, he told me that I was very precise and very aware of his private life and I was not precise with his public life. He completely inverted the perspective. He was sure that I had information about his private life, but I didn’t know anything. I had an idea about his character and I thought it was possible that he talked with his wife in this way and he said those things.
Filmmaker: What was the context in which he saw the film and talked to you about it?
Sorrentino: He watched the film after it was first screened. Through mutual friends, I invited him to watch the movie but I didn’t go to see the movie with him because I was afraid. [laughs] I didn’t talk with him after he’d watched the film but he saw the film with some journalists and they told me what he said.
Filmmaker: What has been the reaction from the political establishment in Italy to this film?
Sorrentino: They didn’t react, just Andreotti because he was involved directly and some people close to him that are involved with the film. But all the rest of the political people they avoided talking about the film. I don’t know why.
Filmmaker: Are you disappointed?
Sorrentino: No, I am delighted about this because in Italy there is always a lot of controversy about everything and I was scared that this film was going to be a fire of controversy for everybody and my hope that was that the film was accepted as a film. Fortunately, the silence of the political world was a good thing for the success of the film.
Filmmaker: I want to talk about Toni Servillo, who has now worked with you on three films. How important to you was it that he play Andreotti?
Sorrentino: For me, it was very important that he accepted because it’s not an easy role and in that age range of Italian actors I don’t think I had the possibility to choose between many people. It was very difficult to think of that movie without him. At the beginning when I told him I’d like to make a film about Andreotti, he didn’t understand what I wanted to do, so he told me, “No, I won’t do it.” But he’s an actor, so after a week he started to think and it was a very attractive idea for an actor to play so strange and mysterious a person who was so important in our lives. So he called me back and said he was interested.
Filmmaker: So how closely did you work with him on constructing the Andreotti we see on screen? It seemed like you can to create your own Andreotti for the movie.
Sorrentino: Yes, we used some two or three things about Andreotti that are very clear and very typical of him, but for the rest me and Servillo invented our own character. In fact, [Toni Servillo] didn’t watch footage of him or study anything about him, he prefer ed to work from the memories he had of him because all Italian people have an idea and a memory about him.
Filmmaker: Which film do you wish you had directed?
Sorrentino: That film by François Truffaut,The Man Who Loved Women. And all the films about 007, especially the films with Sean Connery. My big dream is to do 007.
Filmmaker: What’s the worst (or weirdest) job you’ve ever had?
Sorrentino: At the beginning of my career, I worked in film production and I was a real disaster. I used to lose the film. But I’ve just worked in film: I was a screenwriter at the beginning and then in production, [and finally a director].
Filmmaker: What’s your best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Sorrentino: I think it’s a good idea to watch bad movies because I think that a director can learn more from bad movies. He can look at a film and say, “I must not do this, I must not do that.” It’s more dangerous to watch good movies.
Filmmaker: Finally, should a director always take risks?
Sorrentino: Yes, I think. But it’s also very important that a director has fun. I think cinema is a big game and it must remain a big game.