Il Divo - Giulio Andreotti sits in the middle of a political maelstrom in satirical Italian film Il Divo

With this surreal and sardonic, resolutely offbeat biopic of controversial Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, Paolo Sorrentino confirms his status as one of contemporary cinema’s most dazzling visual stylists.

His subject is the sphinx-like figure who was at the heart of his country’s labyrinthine political system for the best part of half a century. Andreotti, nicknamed ‘Il Divo’ (the star), among a host of other, less flattering appellations, served as prime minister seven times, held umpteen other official posts, and was accused of collusion with the Mafia and with the clandestine Masonic lodge P2.

He was even charged with involvement in the 1979 murder of journalist Mino Pecorelli, found guilty, yet somehow wriggled free of a conviction and remains, at the age of 90, a senator for life.

Enigmatic and inscrutable, Andreotti would defeat a more orthodox filmmaker, yet Sorrentino’s flamboyantly Baroque approach delivers an indelible portrait.

Il Divo - Giulio Andreotti’s faction make an entrance in satirical Italian film Il Divo

I lived in Italy for a couple of years in the early 1980s and found the country’s politics almost as baffling when I left as when I arrived. I never did manage to sort out the endlessly shifting governing coalitions with their varying permutations of the same parties, but I did get the impression that Andreotti was always in the thick of things.

And with his unmistakeable hunched shoulders and owlish spectacles, it was certainly impossible to confuse him with anyone else on the cynical merry-go-round ridden by Italy’s political elite.

Toni Servillo, who starred in Sorrentino’s earlier film The Consequences of Love and also appeared in last year’s chilling Gomorrah, gets Andreotti’s look uncannily right, all the way down to the politician’s weird pigeon-toed gait.

His Andreotti is at once comic and chilling. Pedalling away on his exercise bike in his flat at night, or pincushioned with acupuncture needles to treat his migraine, he is almost a figure of fun. Yet there’s an unmistakeable whiff of sulphur about him too.

We may, in the end, be none the wiser about what actually made, or still makes, Andreotti tick. Nor will we necessarily feel, after the movie, that we now have a firm grasp on the slippery nature of Italian politics, despite the stream of explanatory captions that float across the screen in 3D at various points. But as Sorrentino weaves together several decades of factions and conspiracies, assassinations and kidnappings, he gives us a brutal lesson in the murky and corrupt workings of Italian power.

Released 20th March

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To activate the sound in the trailer: hold your cursor over the screen to reveal the control panel and click on the volume control in the bottom right-hand corner.