Political Psychology Film Review
Il Divo (2008) [Film] Dir. P. Sorrentino. Italy: Indigo Film. [All references are to the English language subtitled DVD (2009) UK: Artificial Eye].
The film is a biopic depicting the political career of former Christian Democratic Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti in the early 1990s. It opens with Andreotti surrounded by his faction of supporters who, it argues, have an objective to “install an authoritarian government” (all film quotes are from Il Divo, as referenced above). Andreotti is represented as a tough figure politically adopting a “hard-line policy” in refusing negotiations with the Marxist-Leninist militant Red Brigades who have kidnapped and allegedly killed his fellow Christian Democrat Aldo Moro. Andreotti is represented as physically fragile, plagued by headaches, hunched and slow moving. Personally, he retains an outward face of constant inscrutable expressionlessness, determined in the conviction of his own beliefs and their validity “in the will of God”. On the other hand, however, he is racked by constant guilt over his involvement in the death of others, and Moro’s death in particular, culminating in a fevered vision of Moro whispering “my blood will spill on you”. As the film develops, Andreotti’s faction die around him, and he is left to face trial for his corruption and involvement with the mafia. He is ultimately acquitted, although, through its selection and exclusion of the representation of events, the film leaves the truth of falsity of his innocence ambiguous.
The film can be read interestingly in relation to key theoretical debates from the lectures and related literature. Elms and Song argue for example, from a psycho-biographical perspective, that politicians are “skilled at impression management” (Elms & Song 2005: 301) and “limit access to personal information” (Elms & Song 2005: 301). This can be seen clearly in the representation of Andreotti, who maintains his inscrutability throughout all public and media appearances. His awareness of the importance of media representation is emphasized, for example when he carefully selects jokes about priests that he knows will be broadcast. Elms and Song also propose that a “psychobiographer typically look at a subject’s childhood for the beginnings of patterns that may persist through adulthood.” (Elms & Song 2005: 302). The film does adopt this approach, focusing from the opening comic epigraph on Andreotti’s relationship with his mother. He later reveals that “I never kissed my mother…she wasn’t all impressed when I became Prime Minister”.
This lends itself to a psychoanalytical interpretation of Andreotti’s authoritarianism in relation to the suggested coldness and distance of his mother. Freud proposed the ‘return of the repressed’ (Freud 1896) as a way of explaining “perplexing symptoms or ideas that symbolically express previously repressed traumatic memories” (Erwin 2002: 496). Adorno drew on this to propose that children who lack emotional connections to their parents repress their hostility, and it later emerges in their own authoritarian character. Aggression, in other words, is a defence mechanism returning from repressed childhood trauma. (Hayes 2000: 222). Andreotti’s self-obsession, seen for example in his walls filled entirely with his own certificates, can be read in terms of Freud’s theory of ‘narcissism’, where “self-regard derives from a residue of infantile narcissism and a sense of omnipotence based on fulfillment of the ego ideal” (Erwin 2002: 356). This is also presented in Andreotti’s lack of interest in intimacy, Freud defining characteristics of narcissism of “abandonment of sexual aims, a desexualisation, a kind of sublimation” (Freud 1923: 30).
Adorno’s Freudian analysis is also useful in analyzing the power relationships between Andreotti and his followers, as presented in the film, where the role of the ego ideal can be played by the figure of the “revered leader” for others (Erwin 2002: 356). As Crook has pointed out, according to Adorno, people who score highly on the ‘F scale’ – a measure of potential fascism, have a “biphasic ambivalence in relation to authority: they are submissive to those above them in a perceived hierarchy and bullying to those below” (Crook 2002: 9). Adorno reads this in relation to Freud’s structure of sadism and masochism. The fascist follower is masochistic, but the leader permits venting of sadism (Adorno 1964: 239). This is seen in the presentation of Andreotti’s followers. Franco Evangelisti, for example who is represented sadistically in his violence towards others, but submissively in his relations to Andreotti, “I’ve always followed you” he pleads, only to be constantly ignored and put down, “another incongruous remark”.
Adorno adopts a Marxist-historical approach to Freudian theory connecting personal biography to historical context, as Crook argues, “Adorno’s Freudianism is a dynamic theory where the ‘self’ is shaped and re-shaped in the interplay between what Freud termed the ‘psychic apparatus’ and historically developing social and cultural conditions” (Crook 2002: 9). The portrayal in the film strongly relates Andreotti’s rise to the historical and specific context of the bribery and corruption scandals in Italian politics in 1992, and his ‘faction’ offer an influential and authoritative pseudo-family structure to produce a specific historically determined individual, as Crook proposes, “the erosion of traditional family-based (paternal) authority undermines those patterns of individual development which produced that ‘mature’ modern individual” (Crook 2002: 10).
On the other hand, however, the film’s portrayal offers an interesting counterbalance to Adorno’s arguments. Adorno proposed the ‘authoritarian personality’ as “a rigid personality pattern, characterized by extreme right-wing political beliefs, punitive approaches to social sanctions and high levels of prejudice towards ‘outsiders’” (Hayes 2000: 22). Two important elements of this personality type are ‘cognitive rigidity’ (Adorno 1964: 464) – people who maintain their beliefs in the face of direct evidence against them; and ‘intolerance of ambiguity’ (Adorno 1964: 326) – people who can only cope with a binary black and white approach to life. Andreotti as portrayed in Il Divo while it could be argued exhibits traits of cognitive rigidity, shows not only tolerance but a delight in ambiguity and belief in the importance of indeterminacy. He rips out the climactic page of a thriller novel as he would rather not know what happens, and he dismisses those who are too fixed in their beliefs and opinions, “truth is the end of the world, we all avoid the end of the world”. Indeed the film offers a more complex version of character than Adorno’s ‘authoritarian personality’, one who prefers the misty uncertainty of never knowing the truth than the imposition of their own universal Truth on the world. Adorno’s research has been criticized for its restricted sample size and universal applicability of his research, “he had not yet proved whether it was possible to apply [the research] to different social groups, under differing political and economical conditions, and without continuous checking using interviews” (Wiggershaus 1995: 412). The film seems to suggest that Adorno’s approach was too rigid in failing to account for a set of political conditions where an analysis of the desire for uncertainty would prove a more psychological insight into the politician than one of the intolerance of ambiguity.
The film is very useful as a text for political psychology. The complexity of Andreotti’s figure suggests limitations of Adorno’s focus on the socio-psychological basis of authoritarianism. Adorno has been criticized for his own refusal of ambiguity, “when you have finished reading the book, you know what an anti-semite is” (Wiggershaus 1995: 411), and his “hidden ambiguities” (Turner 2002: 165). The film, by presenting a figure that does not fit into Adorno’s schema, challenges the universalizing proposition of ‘the authoritarian character’. The film also adopts a far less positivist approach to the possibility of ever getting to the bottom of Andreotti’s desires and motivations. Reflecting the figure’s own delight in ambiguity, the film itself withholds any information that could provide definite motivation for Andreotti’s actions.
At times, the spectator is made to feel uncomfortable as close-ups of Andreotti’s face are held for what seems like an intensely long time, using harsh lighting or rapid jump cuts. Peter Bradshaw has pointed out the inhuman repulsive effect this creates, “chin pushed back creating a bloated toadish neck, elbows clinched to the sides…He looks like no human being I have ever seen in my life” (Bradshaw 2009), and the film emphasizes the media-produced inhumanity of ‘the monster’ or ‘the hunchback’ Andreotti is portrayed as. However, the film also encourages spectator identification by offering extended point of view sequences from Andreotti’s perspective, and offers moments of humanity such as when he holds his wife’s hand, leading to the effect of portraying Andreotti as he describes himself in the film as “a monstrous contradiction”. The film effectively reveals relationships between personality and politics through the relations between characters, which can be analysed in psychoanalytic terms, suggesting the importance of structures of narcissism and masochism in the formation of power. It shows how, for example, Andreotti’s relations to women, including his wife and mother, can be read as indicative of authoritarian personality traits. What it also does however, through Servillo’s affectless performance, the camera’s constant scrutiny of his face, and the narrative’s refusal to provide any neat answers, is to emphasise the unknown at the centre of political authoritarianism, which cannot necessarily be understood through a psychobiographical approach.
Adorno, T. (1964) The Authoritarian Personality, Volume One. Hoboken: Wiley.
Bradshaw, P. (2009) ‘Review of Il Divo’ in The Guardian, Friday 20th March 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/mar/20/il-divo-film-review, accessed 21st Feb 2010.
Crook, S (2002) ‘Introduction: Adorno and Authoritarian Irrationalism’ in Adorno, T. The Stars Down To Earth and Other Essays, Ed. S.Crook. London: Routledge, pp.1-45
Elms, A. C. & Song, A.V. (2005) ‘Alive and Kicking: The Problematics of Political Psychobiography, pp. 301-310.
Erwin. E. [Ed.] (2002) The Freud Encyclopedia: Theory, Therapy and Culture . London: Taylor & Francis.
Freud, S. (1896) ‘Further Remarks on the Neuro-Psychoses of Defence’ in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud 3. London: Karnac, pp.163-188.
Freud (1923) ‘The Ego and the Id’ in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud 19. London: Karnac, pp.3-66.
Hammer, E. (2006) Adorno and The Political. London: Routledge.
Hayes, N. (2000) Foundations of Psychology, 3rd Edition. London: Thompson.
Runyan, W. M. (2005) ‘Evolving Conceptions of Psychobiography and the Study of Lives: Encounters with Psychoanalysis, Personality Psychology and Historical Science in Handbook of Psychobiography Ed. T.W. Schultz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.19-42.
Schultz, W. T. (2005) ‘Introducing Psychobiography’ in Handbook of Psychobiography Ed. T.W. Schultz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.3-18.
Turner, L. (2002) ‘Demythologizing the Authoritarian Personality: Reconnoitering Adorno’s Retreat from Marx’ in The Adorno Reader Eds. N. Gibson & A. Rubin. Oxford. Blackwell, pp.150-172.
Wiggershaus, R. (1995) The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories and Political Significance. Trans. M. Robertson. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.