Dir: Paolo Sorrentino. Starring: Filippo Scotti, Toni Servillo, Teresa Saponangelo, Luisa Ranieri, Marlon Joubert, Betti Pedrazzi. 15, 130 minutes.
Something seems to happen when filmmakers hit 50. Many start to look inward or try to excavate how their life’s work came to be. They loosely recreate the experiences that came to define them, making movies that chart their own origins – Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir. They film their younger and often prettier proxies gazing up at the cinema screen, their futures slowly coming into view. The Hand of God is Paolo Sorrentino’s entry into this semi-autobiographical canon. Matching the dazzling maximalism of The Great Beauty, his Oscar-winning 2013 tribute to the city of Rome, the film is bawdy and wistful, with a rich vein of melancholy running through it.
The year is 1984, and Naples is gripped with Diego Maradona fever. The Argentine footballer is reportedly mulling over a move to the city’s team, and young, fluffy haired Fabietto (newcomer Filippo Scotti – think Timothée Chalamet with a bowl of spaghetti) is abuzz with excitement. Maradona and the hushed awe with which his name is spoken echo months of familial drama. Infidelities are exposed. Practical jokes are played. Beautiful women are lusted after.
These early scenes feel episodic and anecdotal; vague teenage memories – Sorrentino’s own – are endearingly devoid of context. There’s the in-law who communicates via an electronic voice box; the angry neighbour in the upstairs flat; the drips of food down an elderly relative’s chin during a family get-together. It feels intimate and unshackled, like indecipherable musings scribbled down in a sketchpad. They’re powerful, though. We may not understand the particulars – Sorrentino may not either – but we at least recognise how they smell and taste and sound.
Midway through The Hand of God, a surreal tragedy occurs, leading Fabietto to find comfort in cinema. Such a cataclysmic event permanently alters Fabietto himself, but it also weakens the movie around him. Fabietto’s relatives, from his struggling actor brother to his communist father (gentle Sorrentino muse Toni Servillo), shrink into the background and he begins to dominate the story. He finds new friends, wanders the streets and struggles to carve a path for himself. The film becomes smaller and quieter, and exposes the limits of Sorrentino’s approach.
Despite Fabietto’s parallels to Sorrentino’s own story – as well as Scotti’s heartfelt performance – he’s more a cipher than a fully realised human. Take away all of that enthralling dream logic of the film’s early innings, and you’re left with a distracting lack of clarity once actual plot kicks in. Fabietto moves through the remainder of the film like a ghost. We know he’ll grow up to become Sorrentino, but Sorrentino himself struggles to connect all the dots. It’s not fatal to the film’s power, but it’s a clear third-act drop-off all the same.
Still, beauty carries the film. Sorrentino sweeps his camera across lush oceans and harboursides, and plunges his characters into dilapidated mansions and eerily cavernous hospital corridors. Everything feels so big. Often it’s the kind of visual splendour that makes those Peroni ads – with the breathtaking Italians frolicking on the high seas – look like the insides of a dustbin. Whatever you think of The Hand of God, you’ll be Googling one-way tickets to Naples by the end of it.
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