Three years after Roma, Netflix has given another Oscar-winning filmmaker the money and the means to make a semi-autobiographical film about their youth. Imagine what a terrific triple bill we’d have gotten had Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast also landed with the streamer.
A welcome departure from his usual extravagant style, The Hand of God finds director Paolo Sorrentino in an unexpectedly meditative mood. Gone are the sudden bursts of surrealism that have come to define his work in the last decade—no half-naked Popes strutting to Jimi Hendrix here, although that doesn’t mean Sorrentino has lost his fascination for the naked human body, or moments of musical magic. But while The Hand of God certainly flirts with flamboyance on a couple of occasions, it’s a largely restrained coming-of-age tale about a teenager whose carefree life is rudely interrupted by an awful tragedy.
Sorrentino divides the movie into roughly two halves—the first is a slice-of-life comedy, in which you never realise a scene has ended until you’re a couple of minutes into the next one. Our hero Fabietto spends his days lounging in bed, a Walkman perpetually hanging from his neck; an accessory more than a distraction. In the evenings, he fantasises about his voluptuous aunt Patrizia, but never with the sort of enthusiasm with which he imagines a world where Diego Maradona plays for his home team, Napoli.
The film is set against the backdrop of a particularly exciting time for fans of the southern Italian club, who spent an entire summer in 1984 speculating whether the greatest footballer in the world would, against all odds, ditch a successful career in Barcelona and move to their neck of the woods.
Although the film’s title is a rather overt reference to the football star—it also opens with a quote by him—it is only in the movie’s more dramatic second half that Maradona’s true relevance in Fabietto’s life is felt. He was a Christlike saviour to many, but to Fabeitto, he is a symbol–of aspiration, fantasy, and dreams coming true.
After a rather aimlessly structured hour that mirrors Fabietto’s unfocused life—Sorrentino depicts his family almost as caricatures, with uncles doing the Italian hand gesture and aunties feasting on mozzarella—The Hand of God transforms into something more sombre in its second hour. Consequently, from being a passive observer, Fabietto starts taking control of his life.
A lesser filmmaker would’ve surely bungled up the tonal shift necessary to depict a tragic twist of fate that Fabietto must contend with, but Sorrentino guides his story along so masterfully it’s almost as if he is drawing from reality. Of course, he is; he knows this world and these people inside out. Like Alfonso Cuaron in Roma, he lingers on small moments—The Hand of God isn’t driven by plot, it’s moulded by a collection of memories, stitched together by a man who understands how close he came to coming undone.
There are several scenes, for instance, in which Sorrentino lands blows so emotionally draining that you need a moment to recover. But like life, movies—especially the good ones—wait for nobody to catch up. “I don’t want to talk about sad stuff,” Fabietto’s friend tells him in one scene. Our protagonist replies, “Then there is nothing to talk about.”
In another scene, a character observes even more morosely, “What a terrible world this is; you go out to buy ice cream, and when you come back your husband has been arrested.” No other sentence could truly capture the tragicomic tone of this film.
Having been dealt a difficult hand (by God?), it is only in the movie’s final moments that Fabietto—in essence, Sorrentino himself—begins to reveal his interest in cinema. But these seeds had been carefully sown long ago. In an early scene, Fabietto and his family get together to watch Once Upon a Time in America, which his father hilariously refers to as ‘the one with De Niro’. Later, when Fabietto’s brother learns that Fellini is in town casting for his new movie, the two show up at the auditions, where Fellini tells Fabietto’s brother that he has the ‘unremarkable face’ of a small town waiter.
There is also a surprise in store after the movie ends—Netflix has included an eight-minute bonus feature in which Sorrentino, much like Salvatore from Cinema Paradiso, returns to his home town and reminisces about his childhood. The Hand of God is the gift that keeps on giving. In those (very necessary) eight minutes, you’re allowed the time you need to reflect on what you just saw.
The Hand of God
The Hand of God director – Paolo Sorrentino
The Hand of God cast – Filippo Scotti, Toni Servillo, Teresa Saponangelo, Marlon Joubert, Luisa Ranieri, Renato Carpentieri, Massimiliano Gallo, Betti Pedrazzi, Biagio Manna
The Hand of God rating – 4.5 stars