Monday, 27 June 2016

Il Divo: Interview with Director Paolo Sorrentino

Il Divo (Directed by Paolo Sorrentino)
Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s 2008 film Il Divo tells the story of fabled Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, seven times Prime Minister, who faced accusations of conspiracy, Mafia involvement and state terror. Starring Toni Servillo as a chillingly vampiric Andreotti, the labyrinthine intrigues of Italian politics are used to explore the inscrutable personality beneath the controversy. The following interview with Sorrentino on the making of Il Divo took place at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008.

Directors from all periods have recounted Italy. Do your films talk about the south of Italy, or the country in general? Do you consider yourself a southern director? Do you see yourself as belonging to the tradition of political directors like Rosi and Rossellini?

PS: First of all, I’m very curious about other people. About their psychology, their feelings, their foolish, crazy or routine behavior. I’m interested in characters more than anything else; in real life, and therefore in films. These people who intrigue, fascinate or disgust me, may be Italian and therefore representative, albeit partially, of Italian society, and sometimes symbolic of it, as in the case of Andreotti. Political directors like Rosi and Petri are giants who can never be equaled. You can watch them, but not imitate them. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make political films today. On the contrary, we must. Only we have to find a new approach to keep pace with today’s cinema, which has changed so much since the days of the above-mentioned directors.

You depict a corrupt Italy in your latest film. Has the situation improved since the Andreotti years?

PS: Apparently not. But no one talks about corruption in Italy today, although it exists and proliferates. I think people don’t talk about it because Tangentopoli (Bribesville) was a shock for us. A revolution that did not limit itself to deciding who was honest or dishonest, but, consciously or not, changed politics and the previous political class, with endless polemics, backlashes and terrible personal tragedies.


The characters in your films always exist outside the system, like the singer Tony and the soccer player Antonio, in ‘One Man Up’, the exiled man in the pay of the Mafia in ‘The Consequences of Love’, the squalid usurer in ‘The Family Friend’, and now the exceptional politician. Is marginality a source of inspiration to you?

PS: What you’re saying about marginality applies to my previous films, but not to ‘Il Divo’. Indeed, the opposite is true for this film. Andreotti is anything but marginal. He’s a man of power who knows the ways of the world better than others, who knows how to integrate, to take the lead or to blend in, according to which is most advantageous. He is a man who combines cunning with intelligence at the highest most unimaginable level, which has enabled him to govern Italy for many years.

Aside from marginality, your characters, and therefore your films, are always marked by loneliness and melancholy; why?

PS: These feelings are often seen as negative, while they have always been genuine feelings for me, ever since I was a boy. Melancholy and loneliness stimulate the imagination and fantasy. Moreover, they’re universal feelings that we all have to reckon with sooner or later.

Your protagonists are always very ambiguous but they have a human side, though well-hidden, despite their apparent immorality. Can you explain this paradox?

PS: I don’t believe in precise, univocal definitions when it comes to individuals. People change with time and according to the situations in which they’re involved. You can be human and ambiguous at the same time. I don’t see the individual as monolithic. We are all extremely vulnerable, but very good at adapting and faking.


As a director you have a certain tendency to embellish the ugly. Why is that?

PS: It’s not something pre-established. When you tell a story you’re faced with a series of situations, actions, habits, landscapes. It doesn’t really matter whether they are beautiful or ugly in real life, because a film must necessarily have an aesthetic quality, which, for me at least, has to be gratifying. Cinema has the extraordinary power to change the aesthetic perception of tragic or horrific events. The great war films do not neglect the horror of war, but undoubtedly give it a ‘wonderful’ aesthetic image.

So, is a director’s point of view moralist, in the sense of the moralists of the eighteenth century, as opposed to libertine? For instance, do you think moralists see love as a power and libertines see it as a weakness?

PS: Since I’m absolutely crazy about pop music, whose lyrics are loaded with the word ‘love’, I would simply say that love is a power for everyone.

I get the feeling that for you, the sentimental weakness of your characters is their hidden
strength, and their humanity derives from this weakness. Do you think humanity springs from weakness?

PS: Individual weaknesses or failures can, in many cases, be a means of redemption for a person. It’s simply that an individual becomes stronger when faced with a spectre or when he realizes how low he has sunk. Unfortunately, it’s not a fixed rule. If it were, there would be no more suicides.


Regarding your movies…  How does seeking formal beauty enrich your screenplays?

PS: In various ways. There’s no fixed rule, thank goodness, otherwise a film would be boring.  However, I’ve always liked cinema that strives for formal beauty, and have nearly always remained indifferent, as a viewer, to films that suffer because they appear to develop randomly, haphazardly, even when the latter is simply a technique: The crane in ‘The Consequences of Love’; the loan shark sewing the bride’s dress in ‘The Family Friend’; Andreotti walking along the street in ‘Il Divo’.

How do your create your scenes?

PS: I plan them, at home, before shooting the film. I prepare them twice: first, after reading the screenplay, solely in relation to the story; second, after doing the location scouts, which give me more precise, detailed visual elements for creating a scene. I rarely improvise on the set, and only if I have a brilliant idea. But brilliant ideas are so rare. And they can often be wrong. I imagine the film while sitting in an armchair, and then I draw the storyboard. Besides, that’s what a filmmaker’s supposed to do: imagine the film before it exists. I project it in my head beforehand, and it is always more dazzling and precise than the end-result.

Tell us about the actual shots, which appear to be very important to you. Do you always work with the same cinematographer?

PS: Everything’s important in a film, not just the shots. Even the sound man’s mood or the quality of the catering. Any microcosm, in this case a set, can fall apart for the slightest, most insignificant thing. It’s absurd, but it’s a fact. A single shot, if well-thought out and balanced, can enthrall and say more than ten pages of dialogue – that’s why shots can’t be left to chance or delegated to others. Because it’s my job to make the film communicate and, God willing, to enthrall the audience. I always work with the same cinematographer because, naturally, he’s very good and because an understanding with the crew, and first and foremost the cinematographer, is essential to doing a good job.


How do you compose your shots? Your characters always seem like tiny figures in a vast
setting.

PS: I sit down and imagine the shots, while keeping the scene, the dialogue and the meaning of the scene fixed in my mind. I repeat, I imagine them. I imagine the lenses that are required, the angles, the height of the camera, the camera movements and the characters, and where the focus will be. All these variables are directed towards a single goal: making the scene work according to the presuppositions established in the screenplay. I imagine these things pretty accurately, and make any corrections on the set, together with the cinematographer.

Your direction conveys a vision of the world that is derisive, pathetic and political yet full of hope. How do you explain this paradox?

PS: My ‘vision of the world’ (that’s a bit high-sounding) essentially pivots on irony, which I aim for constantly. I look for it everywhere. I don’t know if it works. Life is tragic enough, and irony is the best antidote.

This is your third film with Toni Servillo. Tell us how you work, how you direct him. How did he get into the part of Andreotti?

PS: My way of directing Servillo has become increasingly minimal with every film. I don’t mean that I no longer direct him, but we know each other so well that we understand each other immediately and there’s no need to explain everything in detail. These are the advantages of knowing one another. I think the secret of our partnership, which, all things considered, is a fruitful one, is trust. An indispensable element, especially when the character is as delicate and charged with meanings as Andreotti. I was very struck by Toni Servillo’s way of getting into the Andreotti character. I had
prepared a lot of footage of the real Andreotti for him, but he chose not to watch it. He preferred to go with the screenplay and the fundamental characteristics I had chosen to depict Andreotti. I think the most difficult thing about this character is his impassiveness, his extreme restraint, because thoughts and moods had to be communicated with the slightest changes of expression while maintaining that impassiveness. So it was certainly not an easy part to play.


What about the scene in which Andreotti confesses while looking into the camera Is it a dream or a fictitious element that has nothing to do with History with a capital ‘H’, since we know Andreotti has never confessed? Maybe this scene will cause a scandal in Italy...

PS: For me, it is a dream. It couldn’t be otherwise. But it is also cathartic, for the film-goer and, perhaps, for Andreotti. I don’t know if I’ve touched on the truth, but, as the author of the story, I felt that, at least for a moment, I had to divert my objective gaze from the character and the events, and hazard an interpretation of things, establish a political, and not a penal responsibility. Regarding the latter, I never presumed to act the judge.

Another scene that conveys the character’s ambiguity is the one in which Andreotti and his wife are watching the Italian pop singer Renato Zero on television: filming the characters in tight close-up seems to fine-tune their emotions.

PS: This is another key scene in the film. I attempted to apply to the Andreottis a ‘dizzying’ dynamic that can occur in any couple’s relationship, in other words, that terrible feeling that the person with whom we’re sharing our life is a complete stranger. It’s an agonizing moment, which leaves us feeling completely lost. I’m sure it happens to all couples who’ve been together for some time. When Andreotti’s wife experiences this doubt it inevitably gives rise to a thousand more. They are no longer the usual doubts, like if your spouse is cheating on you, but doubts concerning the fate of a state, of a country, of millions of ordinary people, because Andreotti wielded so much power over the years that he decided many things in Italy.


Tell us about your relationship with music, which is an important element in your films. It’s amazing how it actually seems to be part of your way of filming. Would you say that your film language is musical?

PS: I’d like it to be musical, but I doubt that it is. Instead, I use the emotions that music arouses to write a scene more effectively. I need music to write a screenplay. It can create dizzying emotions, and a certain feeling of power or suspense – which helps me to create scenes that I want to be powerful or suspenseful. I don’t write a single word until I have a new ‘library’ of sounds that are right for the feeling of the film I’m going to develop. Inevitably, a lot of the music that has inspired the writing of a scene, winds up in the actual film.

– Interview with Director Paolo Sorrentino; via emanuellevy.com