The Hand of God
2021, R, 130 min. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Starring Filippo Scotti, Luisa Ranieri, Ciro Capano, Toni Servillo, Teresa Saponangelo.
REVIEWED By Jenny Nulf, Fri., Dec. 10, 2021
The Hand of God – Paolo Sorrentino’s sentimental semi-autobiographical picture about an auteur’s discovery of cinema – is a natural notch in the belt for his oeuvre. His films are sweet like candy, littered with young children whose Spielbergian eyes widen with awe the moment they set their sights on their first moving picture. But the Italian director’s latest breaks away from these cliched traditions littered with hyperbole and hope, uncovering a much more somber experience connected to the yearn to become a film director. Cinema Paradiso and Hugo, this is not.
Its lead is the 17-year-old Fabietto Schisa (Scotti), a lanky boy who’s interested in art but who is also aimless outside the comforts of his familial home. He watches Once Upon a Time in America repetitively, worships at the altar of soccer star Diego Maradona, and inappropriately yearns for his aunt in the evening when he lies in bed. His life is banal and listless, consumed by schoolbooks and family. But an encounter his Aunt Patrizia (Ranieri) has with a whispered about figure called the “Little Monk” shifts his family’s life for the worse, leaving Fabietto with nothing in the vast city of Naples.
Sorrentino doesn’t take the typical routes of depicting grief or finding passion through trauma. The Hand of God is a film that celebrates purposelessness, the lonely and often confounding course of self-discovery. Over the course of the film, Fabietto develops a curiosity for art, specifically cinema and theatre, and its power of reverie. A run-in with Fabietto’s filmmaking idol (Capano as The Dust of Naples director Antonio Capuano) is a befuddling experience for the boy. Capuano urges Fabietto to not dwell on nostalgia, that the directors who do have nothing interesting to say: They’re stuck in the past. He urges the boy to think of the future, to move past his emotional standstill.
Capuano monologues his advice in an ominous cave, where at its center is skylight that, although human-made, feels as if it’s one with its natural surroundings, washing the crystal waves from the ocean in the glistening light from the faint morning’s sunrise. The mixture of the cave, its rustic Italian architecture, and Fabietto’s by-chance meeting of his idol creates a moment that faintly feels mystical yet grounded. “Reality, I don’t like it anymore. That’s why I want to do cinema,” Fabietto pleas, wistfully willing his new passion to fix his current emotionally paralyzed state, but to do that, he needs to learn how to stop dwelling on his setbacks.
“I did what I could. I don’t think I did so badly.” That opening quote from Maradona sets The Hand of God’s tone so precisely. The Argentinian footballer’s presence in Naples is the binding glue that keeps the city thriving and together. He’s the figurative hand of God (the title a reference to his infamous goal during the the 1986 FIFA World Cup semifinals) that saves Fabietto’s life and guides him toward his dream, yet it’s at the expense of others. Maradona is always hovering in the background: playing in a soccer match on in the living room while relatives are being arrested; or in the distance taking practice shots, serving as a metaphor for two brothers as they chat after their parents’ funeral.
Sorrentino’s autobiographical epic is a sober look at the staggering uncertainty of being a teenager. His coming-of-age film isn’t filled with escapist dance sequences, sweeping romantic gestures, or waxing poetic moments of cathartic emotional release, because Sorrentino’s films are already so textured with characters (not mentioned prior, but Toni Servillo and Teresa Saponangelo, who play Fabietto’s parents, are tremendous), lush Italian landscapes (Naples has never been so breathtaking), and magical moments that break up the commonplace of the everyday (like the richest man in the world strutting the empty streets of Capri with a young woman decked out in a golden dress fit for clubbing). The Hand of God is as beautiful as Youth, The Great Beauty, or any one of Sorrentino’s earlier films. It’s a personal, aching, and romantic film that’s swimming in the complicated trials of youth.