Paolo Sorrentino is playing the innocent. One of the most promising young filmmakers in Italy, if not world cinema, he has spent months talking about his controversial film Il Divo .
But as he chats about the film (opening this Friday in Toronto) at a hotel restaurant, he responds with surprise when confronted with the issue of whether he was trying to render Italy's most important politician of the last half-century, Giulio Andreotti, as pure caricature on film.
As played by Toni Servillo, the multiterm former prime minister walks through darkened hallways like Nosferatu. His back is ironing-board rigid, the tops of his ears falling in mild deformity. And never is there a hint of expression on Andreotti's wrinkled mask of a face.
In real life, as in the film, the politician is used to being caricatured, at least by the press. His government was toppled in the 1990s during sensational trials in which Andreotti was charged with alleged ties to the Mafia and to the murder of journalist Mino Pecorelli. Andreotti was eventually acquitted on all charges, and he was appointed a senator for life. Yet controversy and mystery still surround the 90-year-old. And apparently he wasn't pleased with the film.
Sorrentino spoke at length with Andreotti and people who know him personally while writing the screenplay.
"After these meetings, I understood that there is a real possibility that he has a mask in public and he has the same mask at home. He has the problem that he forgot many years ago who he is. And now he can live only under the mask," says the director, in halting English.
"At the beginning of life, he was very ambitious, but living with pain. He lost his father and sister when he was very young. He used this mask after that [as a]defensive. It was a habit to use the mask. I think he has really forgotten who he was before he began his political career."
Andreotti has been called Beelzebub by the Italian press, among other, less than flattering names. And in Il Divo, he is shown in the opening scene with acupuncture needles dotting his face - almost as if Sorrentino is subtly rendering Andreotti as Pinhead, the villain from the Hellraiser horror-movie franchise.
However, Sorrentino insists his film is neither caricature nor satire. "There are some characteristics of politicians that, when they get to power, they become ridiculous," he says. "They are caricatures of themselves without my help."
Drawing inspiration from Stephen Frears's 2006 film The Queen , the director says he set out to understand the politician and, because of Andreotti's vast influence, Italian political culture as a whole, without bias.
"I think it's never a good idea to make a film about somebody that you hate because it becomes a cold film. So I tried to understand this man. I think he is a dangerous and debatable [controversial]politician. But at the same time, he is a sympathetic [character] and he has a strange type of cynical humour," says Sorrentino. "For some Italians, he is the most important statesman that Italy had. For other people, he's the most important criminal that we've had. So, it's this debate."
Simply tackling such a controversial and complicated character shows great fearlessness on the part of Sorrentino. And he doesn't shy away from potential artistic pitfalls either: The film combines a pop and classical soundtrack, jumps back and forth in time, and embraces the complex political in-fighting and accusations surrounding Andreotti. In the hands of a less talented director, it could have turned into a mess; Sorrentino won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2008.
The response in Italy has also been favourable. Just not among politicians or Andreotti himself.
They read it as realism, Sorrentino says, "but it's not a realistic film about politics." Il Divo is based on fact and testimony, yet it ultimately reveals the murkiness of testimony and Andreotti's own story. For instance, in a scene based on details from an informant, Andreotti meets a Mafia boss of bosses. But this is contrary to Andreotti's own testimony later in the film. The truth may never be known, something Italian politics is still coming to terms with.
"I did this film to try to understand the power, to understand something about Italy, because this man Andreotti is a protagonist for the Italian life for 40 years," Sorrentino says.
Il Divo opens in Toronto on Friday and in other Canadian cities in the weeks to come.