There is a memorable climactic scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” in which the director intersperses contrasting scenes of religious piety and brutal violence, accompanied by orchestral music designed to highlight the sanctity of the religious proceedings while enhancing contrasting scenes of multiple murders. It is a brilliant bit of filmmaking. Similarly, in directing “Three Days of the Condor,” the late Sidney Pollack transposed the Christmas song “God Bless Ye Merry Gentlemen” with the final inconclusive scene in which the protagonist, Joe Turner, heads off into the anonymity of the city with a bulls-eye on his back. In both films, music was selected for particular scenes to provide a contrast between what the viewer is seeing with his eyes and what he is hearing with his ears. The effect is to elevate the drama, and it succeeds. In Paolo Sorrentino’s “Il Divo,” the director similarly uses music and sounds to both enhance the suspense integral to his subject – the late Italian politician and consummate power broker Guilio Andreotti’s years in power and the bloodshed and corruption endemic to that period – while succeeding in holding that once powerful individual up to the ridicule Andreotti’s demeanor occasionally warranted.
As “Il Divo” begins, following a brief preface in which the “modern” day Andreotti reflects quietly and alone at his desk, with a montage of brutal murders carried out by unidentified assassins. The passage begins with the blaring rock music that would recur throughout the film. As the music fades, its sound is replaced by the footsteps of a man walking to his car. The sound of those footsteps feeds into the percussion that reignites the rock music and that explodes into an orgy of bloodshed, with the names and job titles of prominent individuals – bankers, a journalist, a senior official in the national police -- presented alongside their dying bodies. It is powerful filmmaking, and sets the tone for the story that follows. The man Sorrentino suggests lies behind this bloodshed is the lonely individual sitting at his desk in a darkened office in that aforementioned opening scene. Andreotti is presented, quite accurately, as an elderly, feeble-appearing man, hunched over and far from handsome. In a fascinating and surrealistic scene early in “Il Divo,” Sorrentino plays Vivaldi’s decidedly upbeat, almost whimsical “Allegro” from his Concerto for Flute and Strings to accompany the image of this physically pathetic man with the weak, effeminate handshake walking through the palatial government estate where he proceeds to stare down a cat with different color eyes. The cat finally backing down from this test of wills, Andreotti continues on his way. Soon after, in a scene reminiscent of “The Godfather’s” use religious music to contrast the brutality inherent in that film’s subject matter, Sorrentino shows Andreotti, again a solo, isolated figure walking slowly through a neighborhood surrounded by heavily-armed bodyguards clearly on-watch for the sudden, violent assault that was a feature of Italian politics for many years.
Sorrentino again uses loud, blaring rock music to accompany a scene that intercuts a horse race, at which Andreotti and his wife are in attendance, with the reappearance of two assassins on a motorcycle chasing down and brutally murdering an individual who, moments earlier, was seen standing in Andreotti’s office looking frightened to death – clearly a portent of developments to come. The exaggerated sounds of the horses hooves pounding around the race track turf and loud rock music reminiscent of that which was heard earlier all serves to heighten the tension and discomfit the viewer. By now, we’ve come to expect that rock music probably portends violence.
Throughout “Il Divo,” Sorrentino uses music and sound to build tension and to illuminate the contrasts between the sanctity of the Catholic Church and the violence endemic to Italy during the years of Andreotti’s reign. Those were extremely violent days for Italians. The Sicilian Mafia was extraordinarily powerful and sufficiently arrogant that it carried out not one but two successful assassinations of highly respected anti-Mafia prosecutors. During the 1970s, the Red Brigades, a terrorist organization dedicated to destroying all symbols and vestiges of capitalism, was active and regarded as one of the most proficient and deadly terrorist organizations in the world, particularly following its kidnapping and assassination of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro, an event portrayed in “Il Divo.” Sorrentino’s use of music and sound illuminates the tensions and violence that were a staple of Italy’s political life during the years of Andreotti’s terms as prime minister. Unsurprisingly, composer Teho Teardo, in scoring Sorrentino’s film, relied heavily on strings, with cellos and violins amplified through the use of electronics such as were routinely used by Tangerine Dream in their synthesizer-heavy scores for Michael Mann’s “Thief” and William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer.” The frequent use of loud, thumping music is unpleasant, but so are the scenes for which that music is used as accompaniment.