Thursday, 26 March 2009

Il Divo: the ultimate Machiavellian?

Il Divo, released in the UK this week, won the 2008 Jury prize at Cannes. Its subject matter is Giulio Andreotti, a central figure in the Italian Christian Democrat party between the 1960s and the early 1990s. During that time he influenced Italian politics heavily, being elected prime minister on multiple occasions as well as holding the Interior, Defence and Foreign ministries. The tale of Andreotti is also that of the different groups that held power and influence in Italy in the late 20th century.

Not least of these is the Mafia, to which Andreotti held connections, and which carried, and continues to carry, heavy sway in Italian public life. Another shadowy group which stalks the film’s subplot is a secret Masonic lodge named P2, of which current prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was a member. P2 was formed in the aftermath of the Second World War with the intention of installing an authoritarian government. We also encounter the Red Brigades - hard-left revolutionary communist terrorists with direct links to the Soviet Union – and the Vatican bank, the financial muscle behind the church.

The film suggests that these groups are the main movers behind the various political assassinations, kidnappings and suicides which dot the film’s storyline (and Italy’s recent history). The most famous of these is the kidnapping and killing of prime minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades in 1978 and the grisly 1982 death of banker Roberto Calvi, left swaying under London's Blackfriars bridge, his pockets filled with bricks.

Although the film leaves statement of fact tantalisingly ambiguous, Andreotti is seen to have benefitted politically from many of these tumultuous events. Moro was his direct, personal rival within the Christian Democrats, a party which maintained an electoral hold in the Mafioso heartlands of Sicily and Calabria. Conversely, during the film Andreotti expresses genuine regret for his part in Moro’s death and, in reality, apparently fell out with the ‘Cosa Nostra’ in the late 1980s during state attempts to tackle its power.

Il Divo, as Andreotti was known (one of the subject's more complementary nicknames), comes across then as the ultimate power broker, a cold manipulator of contending and often violent forces in a massively corrupt political game. I found the keystone of Toni Servillo’s incredible performance in the lead role to be a soliloquy to camera near the film’s end. In it, Andreotti ruminates powerfully on his stricken position, and his thankless task, as he sees it, of leading Italy away from anarchy – ‘doing evil so that good can come to pass’. The ultimate Machiavellian…

After leaving office for the last time in 1992, Andreotti was eventually tried and convicted of responsibility for murder. His trials went on throughout the 1990s and although Andreotti was sentenced in 2003 to 24 years in prison, the conviction of the ‘senator for life’ was controversially quashed on appeal. Now aged 90, he is still prominent in Italian public life. Thanks to this extraordinary film and a life led with ambivalence, Andreotti reputation, meanwhile, will continue to be questioned far into the future.

Want to read more? In A Tale of Two Police Forces, Richard O. Collin tells the story of Italy’s parallel police forces, and how they have contended with Mussolini, the Red Brigades – and the Mafia.

In Coming to Terms with Fascism in Italy, R J.B. Bosworth describes how Italians of both the left and the right have used memories of Mussolini’s long dictatorship to underpin their own versions of history and politics.

Delve deeper for the forces shaping Italian politics of today by reading Machiavelli, Leonardo & Borgia: A Fateful Collusion, in which Paul Strathern delves into a confluence of renaissance politics and papal corruption.

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