“He longs to make movies—cinema being that celebrated monument that saves the sad lives of people like Fabietto, deluding both those who make it and those who watch it to recover from the world they’ve lost,” writes Paolo Sorrentino in his introduction to the companion book for The Hand of God. “But delusions fill up our lives. Which is why cinema will never die.”
If The Great Beauty is Paolo Sorrentino’s La dolce vita, then The Hand of God is his Amarcord. Or perhaps his 8½. Or maybe it’s a bit of both. The Hand of God is Sorrentino’s most overtly autobiographical film to date. It’s also a soulful portrait of his first step towards becoming a filmmaker as his younger self says arrivederci to innocence and turns his eye to the future.
The film, which is Italy’s Oscar bid for Best International Feature this year, meets Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning The Great Beauty and his golden years opus, Youth (my favourite film of 2015), halfway. The Hand of God is a visually sumptuous, almost dreamlike odyssey through adolescence. It follows Sorrentino surrogate Fabietto (newcomer Filippo Scotti) during a transformative summer in Naples. As with Youth, it also features a fateful encounter with Diego Maradona. The soccer star inspires, if not saves, Fabietto. This film too will save viewers from whatever sorrows they carry with them into the theatre. It’s gorgeously therapeutic.
Patrizia’s Power and Fabietto’s Gaze
Fabietto first recognizes the bittersweet beauty of lost innocence when his family rushes to rescue his aunt, Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri). Patrizia’s story opens The Hand of God as she finds herself touched by divine power. She meets a little monk in a grand abandoned cathedral, replete with a decimated, but fully and ravishingly illuminated, chandelier. She tells the monk of her desire for children and her trouble conceiving. He touches her, a bit more physically than God allegedly touched Mary, and advises her that she needn’t worry anymore. Unfortunately, Patrizia’s husband accuses her of being a whore. Cue Fabietto and his parents, Maria (Teresa Saponangelo) and Saverio (Toni Servillo).
Patrizia, frazzled and bloody, hides in her room. As the family enters and Patrizia nervously reacts, her breast slips from her dress. Fabietto can’t take his eyes away. Yes, Patrizia is his aunt, but his interest is less sexual and more emotional. Patrizia, immortalised in Fabietto’s gaze, is an image of great beauty and immense sadness. His thoughts return to Patrizia repeatedly. They do become more sexual, especially when she later strips naked and sunbathes nude during a family excursion.
Sorrentino frames Patrizia sunbathing solo at the bow. Fabietto’s extended family—older, fatter, and plainer than his knockout aunt—sits squished at the stern. They’re mortified, as if their hypersexualized family member has the plague. Fabietto, confused yet aroused, can’t divert his gaze. He sees beauty, confidence, defiance, and power in Patrizia’s freedom.
The Hand of God features many evocative compositions like the shots of Patrizia. A dancer whirls a hula-hoop before a camera. A trapeze artist dangles about the town piazza at night. Fabietto’s grumpy, frumpy aunt devours a grapefruit-sizes hunk of fresh mozzarella with her bare hands while sporting a fur coat on a summer’s day. His mother juggles oranges. His parents hold hands following an argument. A chorus of dazzling misfits populates a casting call with hopes to impress Fellini with their strikingly cinematic looks. An old woman invites Fabietto to brush her steel wool. Few people frame the human body as cinematically as Sorrentino does, affording agency, beauty, and grace to characters of all shapes and sizes.
The Hand of God features continuity in the lush images that make Sorrentino’s films so stirring—any shot from the film could be printed in a magazine to sell perfume. Cinematographer Daria D’Antonio takes over for Sorrentino’s long-time collaborator Luca Bigazzi and doesn’t miss a beat. Sorrentino’s films typically include these aforementioned surreal tableaus. They often invite the well-earned comparisons to Fellini and the Italian maestro’s influence echoes throughout The Hand of God. Yet these images amount to far more than dazzling wallpaper. They’re snapshots of the ways in which an artist sees the world. Through Fabietto’s eyes, Sorrentino conveys how a filmmaker experiences life in images that create lasting impressions and inform his art. The Hand of God imprints these transformative sights within Fabietto’s awakening as an artist. It lets one witness the evolution of an eye for beauty.
Each shot of The Hand of God offers a love letter to parents and place that made Sorrentino the man he is today. Sorrentino’s hometown of Naples appears warm and inviting. So too is the Schisa family home where Fabietto observes both happiness and heartache between his parents. Saverio and Maria are timeless lovebirds—they still share a call-and-response whistle after these years—and Servillo and Saponangelo deliver rich, down to earth performances that radiate love.
Servillo, a Sorrentino regular, is a good as ever as Saverio. Wise, grand, dignified, and funny, he’s a salt of the earth character. Saponangelo, moreover, is the heart of The Hand of God as Maria. She carries Fabietto’s mother with heart and humour. She always wears a smile and carries a giggle, even a repressed one, as she cracks jokes to buoy those around her. There’s a moment, though, when Maria’s illusion of happiness shatters and she tries to repeat her calming act of juggling oranges. They fall, and Saponangelo lets loose a truly painful cry. It’s the sound of a heart breaking.
The palpable love in the Schisa household—both romantic and familial—makes The Hand of God disarmingly jarring when Fabietto learns how such happiness can vanish instantly. He experiences a profound sense of loss, much like Sorrentino did during his youth. The Hand of God undergoes a sharp tonal shift as Fabietto sees the world anew. He learns that he can hold impressions in his mind’s eye far longer than he can in life. Hence the impressionable long takes, and hence his newfound love for cinema as celluloid immortalizes youth and beauty.
Saved by Maradona
Even more than cinema, however, Fabietto loves Maradona. The people of Naples become energized when they learn that the famed soccer player is coming to town. Scotti, whose curly locks and impressionable performance invite immediate comparison to Timothée Chalamet in the equally sun-kissed Call Me By Your Name, looks through Naples with a teenager’s eyes: observant, inquisitive, and eager. But when he spies the soccer star in a Napoli square, he’s like an old nonna encountering the Virgin. His eyes light up with boyish glee.
Fabietto idolizes Maradona and is luckier than he ever could have imagined he would be when his father gifts him season’s tickets for his birthday. The titular hand of God ultimately refers to Maradona’s mitt, which defiantly touches a ball during a game. But it also saves Fabietto, much like Sorrentino says it saved him. After experiencing a moment of profound grief and sorrow on the pitch, Maradona’s charisma prompts him to keep running forward. He wants to be the best at something, just as Maradona is the greatest player on the field. With The Hand of God, it’s safe to say he scored his goal.