Il Divo — Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s devastating film about Italy’s very corrupt prime minister Giulio Andreotti, who governed the country for much of its postwar history — is in theaters now. Having won a Jury Prize at Cannes, it’s the first of Sorrentino’s works to open theatrically in the U.S., but Sorrentino, 40, has been making some of the most stylistically exciting films of recent years. Indeed, we’ve pinned our hopes on the belief that he’ll do nothing less than save world cinema. Why so sure? Here’s why Paolo Sorrentino is the next great international auteur — with a little input from the man himself.
1. If Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, and Federico Fellini had a love child, Sorrentino would be it.
In Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 classic A Matter of Life and Death, an emissary from a sepia-toned heaven arrives on Earth, takes a look at the verdant forest where he’s landed, and sighs, “One is starved for Technicolor up there.” It can feel that way sometimes on a film-festival circuit dominated by the aesthetics of austerity and limitation. Most art films now are made by the children of Ozu and Bresson (locked-down static shots of poker-faced actors) or the children of Cassavetes (videos of twentysomethings not talking about their lives). Many of those films are vital and occasionally even transcendent. But sometimes, movies need to move. Sorrentino’s cinema, with its rapturous camera moves, its bursts of music, and its almost naïve belief that the screen can still evoke bold emotions, is the antidote to the Cinema of Lack.
Talking to Sorrentino, we assumed his influences began with Italian aesthetes like Michelangelo Antonioni, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Federico Fellini — but the director told us not to forget the Americans: Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Stanley Kubrick, and the Coen Brothers. “I think that after more than 100 years of cinema, a lot of the stories have been told already,” the filmmaker says. “Both as a viewer and as a filmmaker, I’m drawn to movies that explore new ways of telling stories, that use style to convey emotions and ideas to the audience.” His films breathe and dance with exuberant American-style stylization, but they also plumb greater psychological depths. While our younger filmmakers are following the most ascetic European influences, Sorrentino is reinventing our pop roots — much as the British Invasion reinvented American music with lyrical complexity and wonder.
2. He makes politics beautiful.
Il Divo is not a standard biopic by any measure. It hurtles through the events of the Prime Minister’s final administration, with backroom wheelings and dealings shot like a Martin Scorsese gangster picture. It has a thrilling, breakneck rhythm all its own. Initially, this seems to come at a price: The standard critique of Il Divo is that, for all its stylistic accomplishment, it will only make total sense to Italian audiences. But this is ludicrous: Sorrentino has global ambitions and he tells us he never assumed anyone would know the facts of Andreotti’s secretive life. “Only the viewers above fifty know anything about this period. Younger viewers, they have no idea.”
Sorrentino wants us to be adrift. For all of Il Divo’s “facts,” it is a film about the moment. He wants us to find our own moral bearings in this dreamlike world of sleaze and corruption. So many filmmakers fall into the trap of recapping (checking off every highlight in a politician’s career) without dramatizing. Compare Il Divo to Oliver Stone’s paint-by-numbers, talking-point-riddled W.. W. is careful but anemic. Divo is jarring but thrilling. To put it another way, Nixon had Hunter S. Thompson. Andreotti has Sorrentino.
3. His movies are all about change.
Sorrentino has made four feature films to date, and the last three — The Consequences of Love, The Family Friend, and Il Divo — are all about how ossified characters, traditions, and routines are forced to change. Andreotti is a fixed political presence who has been prime minister for much of Italy’s postwar history. But shot by Sorrentino (and played by the great Toni Servilio), he’s something altogether more timeless and sinister: pale hands gathered limply at his torso, surrounded by statues in a shadowy, museum-like office. “When I met him, I found out he lived in this mysterious office, in the dark. He reminded me of Nosferatu,” Sorrentino says. He surely must have seemed that way to a lot of Italians — the timeless, spectral presence who seemed eternally appointed to rule.
This Andreotti may be at the center of power, but he also shares a kinship with the mob bagman of The Consequences of Love and the pathetic, malformed loan shark of The Family Friend. In each film, Sorrentino is interested in the moment when the modern world comes crashing in on these men. He is the ideal director for our times because he thrives on the clash between the old and the new.
4. His films are all about debt.
His films couldn’t be more timely. The Family Friend might just be the most disturbing and beautiful film we’ve ever seen about a loan shark. So we’re just going to let our favorite scene from that film explain this one.
5. He’s got a pair the size of Italy.
Most filmmakers take potshots from the safety of editing suites. Sure, we occasionally get confrontation, but it’s usually of the Michael Moore “gotcha” variety. So it comes as a shock to us to learn that Sorrentino, after making Il Divo and before premiering it, actually screened it for the fearsome Giulio Andreotti. And it wasn’t a let’s-make-the-old-man-watch-and-film-him-crap-his-pants-in-anger stunt, but rather a private screening: Needless to say, Andreotti wasn’t pleased, but what particularly infuriated the normally reserved politico was something very specific: a fictional scene where he confesses to the camera. “He was very, very angry about that,” Sorrentino tells us,dryly. “He threatened to leave the screening. It was uncommon to see this kind of reaction. But I felt it was a sign of respect to show him the film before we showed it to anyone else. After all, without him, there is no movie.”