If you plan to see "Il Divo" -- and you should -- be prepared to hold on to your seat. Simultaneously exhilarating and confounding, dazzling and confusing, this is filmmaking of such verve and style that you likely won't care that you can't follow it completely.
One of two breakthrough Italian films (the other was "Gomorrah") to receive prizes at Cannes last year, "Il Divo" comes by its intricacy honestly. It deals with what's been called "the fiendish complexities of postwar Italian politics," and it throws more names at you than the Naples phone book. But there's only one you need to remember, one man you can't forget, and that's Giulio Andreotti.
Seven times Italy's prime minister, made senator for life in 1991 and still active at age 90, Andreotti is best understood by his nicknames: the Sphinx, the Hunchback, the Black Pope. Enigmatic and inscrutable, his country's most powerful and feared politician for more than 50 years, Andreotti is as controversial as only someone who understands power to the nth degree can be.
To play a man like this, director Paolo Sorrentino has chosen his frequent collaborator and one of Italy's best actors, Toni Servillo (who also had a key role in "Gomorrah"). An actor of remarkable subtlety, Servillo delivers a mesmerizing performance as a man whose physical qualities -- stooped walk, rigid posture and monotone voice -- give him the appearance of a living corpse. But Servillo does such a commanding job of animating the piercing intelligence and will to power behind this impassive facade that he won the European Film Award for best actor for his work.
Sorrentino, who also wrote the screenplay, knows better than to think he can completely understand a man this complex, but he knows how to make him compelling, and how to entertain the audience, for instance, by treating us to a series of Andreotti's aphorisms. "If one wants to keep a secret, one mustn't even confide in oneself," the man says, along with the pungent, "when they asked Jesus what truth was, he did not reply."
"Il Divo" (a masculine counterpart to diva and another of Andreotti's nicknames) begins in the early 1990s, as the politician is forming his seventh administration. But what we see on the screen are not dull meetings but a whole series of unsolved murders presented with such panache that even the red captions announcing them float around the screen with digitally created abandon.
Andreotti, with his crippling headaches and his habit of taking walks through Rome at 4 a.m. surrounded by a huge security detail, seems like the least likely person to be involved in these kinds of shenanigans.
But as "Il Divo" progresses, questions arise as to the man's possible collusion in all kinds of nefarious situations, things like the death of former Prime Minister Aldo Morro at the hands of the Red Brigades, complicity in a corruption scandal called Tangentopoli (Italian for Bribesville), participation in a plot by a Masonic Lodge to use any means possible to keep the Communists out of power, even an alliance between his Christian Democratic Party and the Mafia.
To completely understand all these complicated scenarios, some of which are little more than hinted at in the film, will be beyond the power of those who do not come to "Il Divo" with a sophisticated knowledge of Italian politics, which excludes an awful lot of people.
But it is a tribute to the vivid stylization that writer-director Sorrentino employs, to the almost criminally lively and continually unexpected quality of the images he puts on-screen, that knowing everything seems besides the point. The key conundrum is put to Andreotti by a journalist: "You're either the most cunning criminal in the country because you never got caught, or you're the most persecuted man in the history of Italy."
See the film; decide for yourself.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Regal Westpark 8, Irvine