Paolo Sorrentino is arguably one of the world’s great directors, so it’s a special occasion when a new film of his is released. That’s most definitely the case with “The Hand of God,” which is something of a stylistic departure for the Italian heir to Fellini.
Most of Sorrentino’s films, especially the Oscar-winning “The Great Beauty,” have an operatic style, with swirling camerawork, high irony, with a touch of the sacred and profane. In “The Hand of God,” the approach is much more even-handed, and one might argue more mature.
The subject matter is close to Sorrentino’s heart. It’s about his childhood — his boisterous, colorful extended family who would gather for open-air meals in the countryside near Naples and argue and joke and juggle oranges.
As Sorrentino says in notes for the press, “The biggest difference between this film and my others I think is in the relationship between truth and lies. While my other films feed off lies in the hope of tracking down a shred of truth, this film started from true feelings that were then adapted to the cinematic form.”
“The Hand of God” unspools through the eyes of Sorrentino’s alter ego, Fabietto Schisa, played by newcomer Filippo Scotti, as he’s coming of age. Fabietto is 16 and at the awkward stage of not knowing what’s ahead. He doesn’t have a girlfriend. He doesn’t know what he wants to study. But throughout the movie, he begins to realize that he might want to be a filmmaker.
“This age is a damned age,” Sorrentino says of adolescence. “You’re living in a limbo, in that middle land between the child you no longer are and the grow-up you are not yet. Therefore your relationship with reality is already complicated.” And it gets even more complicated for Fabietto because of a family tragedy that mirrors a real-life one that happened to Sorrentino as an adolescent.
Fabietto is close to his parents Saverio and Maria, played by Sorrentino regulars Toni Servillo and Teresa Saponangelo. His parents have a seemingly close relationship, and often communicate merely by whistling, and he has a brother, Marchino (Marlon Joubert) as well as a sister who spends most of the movie locked away in a bathroom.
Like Fellini, Sorrentino has exceptionally interesting female characters who widen the scope of the storytelling. In “The Hand of God,” there are two such characters: Fabietto’s voluptuous aunt Patrizia (Lisa Ranieri) and Baronessa Focale (Betti Pedrazzi).
Patrizia sets some of the movie’s magic in motion when she is approached by a noted Neapolitan, San Gennaro (Enzo Decaro), and taken to see the Napoli legend The Little Monk, who bestows her with the ability to conceive a child — something she has failed to do with her physically abusive husband.
Patrizia becomes pregnant only to lose the child during one of her husband’s beatings. Yet she is a tragic but mysterious figure for Fabietto, especially since she has been known to disrobe at family gatherings.
The baroness, meanwhile, lives in the upstairs apartment and makes clear that her social standing is far above that of the Schisas. But by the end of the movie, she makes a gesture to Fabietto that is both generous and a bit creepy.
Other characters make memorable impressions as well, like the meanest woman in Naples, Señora Gentile (Dora Romano) and an especially overweight Schisa relative who shows up at a family gathering with a husband-to-be who has lost his voice box and holds a vibrating device up to his throat to speak. The only problem: He won’t shut up.
Amid all of these events in 1980s Naples, one stands out above all others for Fabietto: the arrival of the soccer great Diego Maradona to play for the Naples team. And it’s Maradona who inadvertently saves Fabietto from a family tragedy. Fabietto begs to stay in Naples and skip a vacation so that he can see Maradona play, and various relatives say this was “the hand of God” at play.
Famously, in real life, Maradona was also credited with using the phrase “the hand of God.” During the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, he scored Argentina’s two winning goals against England. The second goal, according to soccer legend, is considered an eternal masterpiece. But during the first, replays would reveal Maradona’s hand had fouled the ball. As the press notes explain, “When asked about it after the game, Maradona cheekily replied: ‘A little with the head of Maradona, a little with the hand of God.’ “
As Sorrentino tells a personal story, it’s important for him to get into many of his filmmaking influences. “The Hand of God” is full of them.
During “The Hand of God,” Fellini is holding auditions for a new movie, and Fabietto’s brother tries out. Then there’s Zeffirelli, who is part of a prank, and there’s a videotape of Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” sitting atop the Schisa family’s TV. But a real-life director, Antonio Capuano, plays a central role in the movie, just as he did in Sorrentino’s life.
Near the end, Fabietto meets Capuano, who bluntly advises the young man to be completely honest with himself if he hopes to become a director. “The dialogue with Capuano … is a composite of many conversations we’ve had, not only when working together but in our long friendship,” Sorrentino says.
Ultimately, “The Hand of God” is about finding a way amid a tragic loss and the awkwardness of adolescence. Fabietto is walking through a no man’s land, and he’s looking for a way forward.
Movie lovers should celebrate that Sorrentino found not only a way forward, but also a beautiful way to fill the years that followed.
“The Hand of God” opened theatrically in select theaters on Dec. 3 and is on Netflix starting Dec. 15. Visit netflix.com/thehandofgod.