“a series of warm memories of a city, with moments of tacky Sorrentinian beauty, and with an interesting if not wholly successful look into the start of an illustrious career”
“I want to film a different reality.” The words of Paolo Sorrentino’s young alter ego Fabietto, and Sorrentino keeps his word by starting and ending his latest film, the very personal The Hand of God, with two moments of beautiful magical realism like only he can do. In between is more or less an autobiography of his teen years in Naples in the mid-80s, a series of memories of happy and sad times and the portrait of a family, his family, in the vibrant city in Italy’s South. Perhaps it was his age (Sorrentino recently turned 50), perhaps it was COVID and the social distancing it brought, but The Hand of God is a film deeply focused on the strength of family and community, oscillating between moments of pure joy, profound sadness, heartbreaking melancholy, and sweltering sensuality. Woven through it is the success story of the man that in a way saved Paolo Sorrentino’s life, the man that for a time was more important than God, no, was God in Naples, Diego Maradona, his famous hand goal lending the film its title.
Stringing the memories together by using Maradona’s most important moments in Naples prevents The Hand of God from becoming a set of disjointed scenes, although it still feels somewhat scattershot, in particular in the more lightweight yet often hilarious first half of the film. Once we get past a dramatic turning point – the tragic death of the protagonist’s parents – Fabietto Schisa (in a revelatory performance by Filippo Scotti) pushes his life and thus the film more towards a flowing narrative, with a defining scene in which the aspiring director gets advice, scoldingly delivered, from famous fellow Neapolitan Antonio Capuano. “Don’t become undone!” he impresses upon the young Fabietto, and whatever interpretation Sorrentino gave this advice, it did lead him to Rome and to the pinnacle of cinema. But Naples is where it all started, and as such The Hand of God is a love letter to Sorrentino’s city of birth.
There is no true narrative thread in this coming-of-age story of Fabietto, the quiet one in a loud (in a very Neapolitan way) extended family, grotesque and vulgar, but also warm and loving in their own way. His parents (Toni Servillo and an outstanding Teresa Saponangelo) are reasonably well-to-do and are building a second home in the countryside, even if their relationship is under some stress because of an extra-marital affair on the father’s side. Fabietto’s brother Marchino wants to be an actor, but casting calls with the likes of Federico Fellini (something Sorrentino’s actual brother indeed did) fail to provide a breakthrough. The adolescent Fabietto is sexually awakening, never more so than around his sultry aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri, best-in-show next to Scotti, and also stunningly sexy), who gets his hormones racing, although she has this effect on all male members of the family, hilariously shown in a scene where she has no qualms about sunbathing completely naked on the family boat with everyone present. The one constant in Fabietto’s life is Maradona: first there is the fervor of does-he-or-doesn’t-he regarding his transfer to Napoli, then his display of magic during the ’86 World Cup (with the ever-fighting family missing his most famous goal), and finally when he gifts Napoli almost singlehandedly with the league title in 1987, an event that is forever etched in the collective memory of the city as a victory over the ‘other Italy’, the powerhouses of Italy’s North that always looks down with disdain on the South. The most important Maradona moment, however, for Fabietto (and Sorrentino) is the weekend his parents spend in their new home. He is supposed to come too, but chooses to attend a match over a weekend away, which ultimately saves his life as his parents die from an unfortunate gas leak.
The Hand of God is clearly the most personal film in Sorrentino’s body of work, and a film that shows clear passion for his story but also his city and its vitality. It’s also a film about persevering against all odds: how can a boy with a dream, a boy who has seen maybe three or four films in his life, realize that dream of becoming a film director? “Don’t become undone,” was Capuano’s advice, but also, “Have something to say.” It is not entirely clear if Sorrentino wants to leave a profound message behind with The Hand of God, and perhaps with this film he didn’t follow his counterpart’s guidance. Which leaves us with a series of warm memories of a city, with moments of tacky Sorrentinian beauty, and with an interesting if not wholly successful look into the start of an illustrious career. Fabietto remains somewhat of an enigma in a film that is very particular in time and place, and thus at times impenetrable for outsiders.