“I don’t believe in chance, I believe in the will of God.” That credo, spoken in a dry, dispassionate voice, drops more than once from the mouth of Giulio Andreotti (Toni Servillo), the scandal-ridden seven-time Italian prime minister, in Paolo Sorrentino’s flamboyant biographical fantasy, “Il Divo.”
A label once applied to Julius Caesar, Il Divo is only one of several popular nicknames for Mr. Andreotti, who entered the Italian political arena in the late 1940s and is now 90. As the right-leaning leader of the country’s centrist Christian Democratic party, Mr. Andreotti, elected to his first term as prime minister in 1972, has been called the Sphinx, the Hunchback, the Black Pope and Beelzebub. He was appointed a senator for life in 1991.
In exploring Mr. Andreotti’s possible connections to a stream of political assassinations and to other killings made to look like suicides, which began in the late 1970s and continued into the early ’90s, “Il Divo” has the tone and style of a blood-soaked comic opera.
The most notorious crime to occur on Mr. Andreotti’s watch was the abduction of Aldo Moro, his left-leaning rival for prime minister, in March 1978 by members of the Red Brigade. Mr. Andreotti refused to negotiate with the kidnappers, and 54 days after the abduction, Moro’s bullet-riddled body was discovered in a car.
The density of violent crime in this speculative history of skulduggery in high places equals that of “I, Claudius,” “The Sopranos” and the “Godfather” movies. In Mr. Servillo’s portrayal, Mr. Andreotti, the ultimate Teflon politician — he was sentenced to 24 years in prison in 2002 in connection with the assassination of a journalist but was eventually cleared of the charges— suggests a Peter Sellers parody of Henry Kissinger with the deadeyed gaze of Peter Bogdanovich.
Poker-faced, blinking behind thick, tortoiseshell glasses, the distant traces of a smirk playing on his lips, Mr. Andreotti sidles through the corridors of power like a shy undertaker, his shoulders hunched, his elbows clamped to his sides, a security detail trailing him like a funeral cortege.
“Il Divo” unfolds as a series of solo and choral set pieces that culminate in two arias. In the first, a journalist interviewing Mr. Andreotti lays out the presumed crimes and calls him either the most cunning criminal in the country who never got caught or the most persecuted man in the history of Italy. In the second, Mr. Andreotti imagines confessing his guilt to his wife, Livia (Anna Bonaiuto); it is the only moment when his composure cracks.
Although “Il Divo” is a blanket indictment, it goes to great lengths to understand what drove Mr. Andreotti to commit his supposed crimes and even follows him into a confessional where he admits his regret over Moro’s death.
The film, which won the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes festival, has an uphill battle in American theaters. Most of its real-life characters are unknown outside Italy, and the complicated, shadowy relationships among politicians, the Mafia and the Vatican are difficult to decipher.
But the filmmaking is sensational. From its bizarre opening image of the migraine-prone Mr. Andreotti with acupuncture needles stuck in his head — a picture of prime minister as human porcupine that could be out of a Fellini film — “Il Divo” is a tour de force of indelibly flashy imagery. The story begins with a spectacular montage of assassinations from the late 1970s to the early ’90s; then, one by one, the sinister, loyal-unto-death members of Mr. Andreotti’s Christian Democratic faction are introduced.
The movie repeatedly and gleefully quotes from the “Godfather” trilogy, especially Part 3. Although it dips back in time, it concentrates on Mr. Andreotti’s later years and ends with his 1999 trial for associating with the Mafia. One of several brilliant set pieces shows the 1992 assassination of Salvo Lima (Giorgio Colangeli), Mr. Andreotti’s Sicilian connection, in a scene that intercuts shots of Mr. Andreotti at the race track with the hit man on a motorcycle pursuing his prey.
Almost every shot in the film is a grand composition, with heavy chiaroscuro and emotionally stirring music (a compendium of Sibelius, Fauré, Vivaldi and Saint-Saëns, along with Beth Orton, Teho Teardo and Trio’s “Da Da Da”). As operatic cinema, it ranks alongside the best of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.
In the movie’s climactic confession, Mr. Andreotti’s dispassionate facade slowly dissolves, and his voice rises as he uses the image of his wife’s innocent eyes to describe his self-justifying, megalomaniacal political philosophy. Those eyes, he says, “have no idea of the deeds that power must commit to ensure the well-being and development of the country,” as he takes “direct and indirect responsibility” for 236 deaths between 1969 and 1984.
All this carnage is justified with an imperious declaration: “We cannot allow the end of the world in the name of what is right. We have a task, a divine task. We must love God greatly to understand how necessary evil is for good. God knows it, and I know it too.”