Film Review – The Hand of God
The Hand of God
Paolo Sorrentino, the Italian writer/director whose The Great Beauty (2013) won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, has returned with what might be his most personal work to date. The Hand of God (2021) is a coming-of-age tale of a boy growing up in 1980s Naples. The protagonist acts as a stand in for Sorrentino himself, who was also raised in Naples and whose real-life experiences are translated here. Although the narrative acts as an account of Sorrentino’s upbringing, there is an air of magical realism. Everything feels heightened and expanded, as though what we are seeing is not a factual retelling but the distorted memories of its creator.
All throughout, Sorrentino balances the beautiful with the grotesque. He opens the setting and characters in full view, not shying away from their positive and negative attributes. There is a constant back and forth between the sacred and the obscene, from the chaste to the carnal. This is a place where families can gather for a picnic next an oceanside backdrop, but it’s also where characters draw profane images of penises around town. One can romanticize the youthful joy and spontaneity of the nightlife but can easily fall for the temptations of sin. Heaven and hell exist in the same space. This clash of opposing sides can make for awkwardly comic situations as well as moments of tragedy and sadness. In Sorrentino’s world, the two go hand in hand – you cannot have one without the other.
We’re introduced to the Schisa family, made up of a cast of colorful characters. At the center is Fabietto (Filippo Scotti) a kid on the precipice of adulthood. He is surrounded by a family that all have their unique quirks and traits. His brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert) wants to be an actor. When we meet him, Marchino prepares himself to audition for the next Federico Fellini film. Fabietto’s mother, Maria (Teresa Saponangelo) loves playing pranks on their neighbors, and his father Saverio (Toni Servillo) is kind despite having his own weaknesses with the flesh. And this is just his immediate family. On the periphery is a sister who never leaves the bathroom and a grandmother who spends her time chastising everyone she sees. Fabietto’s voluptuous Aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri) is his muse and the basis of his blossoming sexuality. Above all else is soccer. The sport is treated like a religion for the family, and when rumors spread that superstar Diego Maradona may take his talents to Naples, they treat it as the second coming of Christ.
Sorrentino’s writing/direction and Cristiano Travaglioli’s editing structure the narrative episodically, oscillating between light and dark equally. In one scene, the family can be laughing and goofing off with each other only to be followed with a heated argument. The opening prologue has Patrizia meeting what appears to be the ghost of San Gennaro in hopes of bearing a son. The sequence has a dreamlike quality, highlighted by a golden chandelier illuminating a large hall. Sadly, the night ends in a fight with her husband, who accuses her of being unfaithful. All the while, Fabietto remains constantly observing, taking in everything to inform his life, his passions, and his future. He is looking for inspiration, something to guide him from a boy into a man. His search brings him to odd places, including a friendship with a local criminal and a run in with a much older neighbor. Since Fabietto represents Sorrentino as a youth, there is also the presence of the cinema. When an unexpected tragedy hits the family, Fabietto finds increasing solace in the theater. As a character points out, “Cinema is a distraction from reality, which is lousy.”
Like Timothée Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name (2017), Filippo Scotti’s central performance inhabits youthful innocence slowly coming to grips with the harsh realities of life. With his tall, thin frame, soft features, and attentive eyes, Scotti gives Fabietto nuance and texture even though the character is somewhat of a blank slate. Where everyone else exhibits charisma and uniqueness, Fabietto feels undefined. Perhaps that was intentional. Maybe Sorrentino is suggesting that Fabietto does not have much dimension because he is still trying to identify who he is and what he wants to become. He is always searching for some escape – he even walks around with a cassette player clipped to his side and headphones around his neck, ready to be played at a moment’s notice.
Daria D’Antonio’s cinematography has a sensual vibrancy. From the colors of the costumes, the sparkling blue of the surrounding water, to the streetlamps lighting the corners and alleyways of Naples, everything feels alive and buzzing. On one street, a couple can be passionately kissing. Down near the shore, police officers chase smugglers on speedboats. Turn a corner and you may find a movie production in the middle of a shoot, with crowds gathered to watch. There’s a feeling spontaneity, and as we move toward the film’s second half, reality and fantasy start to emerge. We aren’t sure if what Fabietto is experiencing is really happening, or a figment of his imagination. Does he interact with the people he runs into, or is it his own subconscious telling him what he already knows?
Just as Fellini’s Amarcord (1973) recreated a nostalgic and exaggerated version of his childhood, so too does Sorrentino with The Hand of God. While I’m not entirely sure that the entire piece comes together in a complete and satisfactory way, there is no question that Sorrentino’s soul exists in every frame. He embraces the splendor and the vulgarity, each playing an important role in who he is as a filmmaker and as a human. Of all the gifts he has to offer us, the most important is his honesty.