Nietzsche once said, “The world needs to be thickened by poetry.” What he meant by this, and by so many other cryptic but appealing notions that flowed from his pen, remains unclear. But one application, at least, is apparent: Those who devise and produce biopics and historical films in general must simultaneously evoke realities and entertain the viewer. To do that, facts need sometimes to be variously transformed, improved or rendered more adventurous or obviously dangerous. In short, thickened by poetry.
Paolo Sorrentino’s account of legendary Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti in the 2008 film Il Divo provides a perfect example of such a process. As Michael McDonald pointed out in these pages, “poetic license” plays an extremely important part in the structure of a work rife with elements of the surreal or the improbable.1 Sorrentino mixes fabricated dreams of the protagonist with scenes of murder, of orgy, of mafiosi. No device goes unused to make the film more dynamic, “sexier.” Andreotti, who was the leader of the moderate Christian Democracy Party (Democrazia Cristiana), became the filmic equal of Al Pacino or Marlon Brando in The Godfather trilogy. The historical figure was anything but sexy. With his big glasses and impassive demeanor, he was not an appealing hero (or even an appealing anti-hero) for a commercially ambitious international production. So the director transcended the biopic formula to create an “imaginary portrait” of the Italian statesman that lay somewhere between hyperreal and surreal, not literally true—that wasn’t Sorrentino’s aim—but even better: poetically real.
Giulio Andreotti could be compared to the 15th-century aristocrat Cosimo de Medici “the Elder”, the first important member of a dynasty that ended up ruling Florence for nearly four centuries: Both were as discreet and uncharismatic as they were influential and smart. The later Medici sovereigns had to forge an official image, a biopic of sorts, for their ancestor, shaping his myth by asking the best writers and artists to turn a prosaic man into a poetic icon. Cosimo the Elder was a successful merchant, indeed the most prominent man in his city, but he was also cautious and modest; his image reflected both. By contrast, Cosimo the Younger, who ruled as the first Grand Duke of Tuscany in the 16th century, revealed himself to be a much more flamboyant character, with no need for posthumous legend-building.
Cosimo the Elder, Cosimo the Younger: The distance between these two Florentine statesmen mirrors that between Sorrentino’s Il Divo and the new film by Erik Gandini, Videocracy, about Silvio Berlusconi. Videocracy breaks new ground as a form of political filmmaking, no doubt. It is an athletic genre-jumper. Whether it...