Most of Paulo Sorrentino’s previous works center on larger-than-life personalities: Italy’s most powerful politicians in 2008’s Il Divo and 2018’s Loro, a big-time writer in The Great Beauty (2013), and the Holy Father himself in TV’s The Young Pope and The New Pope. While his latest Italian-language film, The Hand of God, gives audiences glimpses of soccer star Diego Maradona, the drama has a much less famous focus: teenaged Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti). Learning that Fabietto is based on Sorrentino himself (one of Italy’s greatest living directors) does add a bit of grandness to the coming-of-age movie, but The Hand of God remains a more intimate, scaled-down picture than most of the filmmaker’s oeuvre — while simultaneously elevating it to one of his best. However, Sorrentino’s grandiose visual style remains intact, creating a vivid depiction of life as a boy in 1980s Naples, with none of the gauzy haze sometimes associated with nostalgic movies.
What makes The Hand of God such a triumph for the already-decorated director is the specificity of both its visuals and its characters. Cinematographer Daria D’Antonio delivers arresting image after arresting image, from a chandelier collapsed on the floor to a boatful of bathing-suit-clad family members staring at the single brazenly nude sunbather among them. It’s all simply gorgeous, and not just because of the Mediterranean setting. Sorrentino doesn’t shy away from showing Naples’ less-picturesque corners, but it’s still shot with such a lucid eye that it’s impossible to look away.
The characters get a similar treatment. Sorrentino’s script depicts a sprawling family, orbiting around his on-screen counterpart in young Fabietto, as well as his father (Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo), his mother (Teresa Saponangelo), and his older brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert). Each person feels real and flawed; there’s a streak of cruelty in how the extended family treats each other and the unlucky interlopers, but there’s also real affection for these people. Give me a whole movie about Signora Gentile (Dora Romano), the imperious matriarch of Fabietto’s extended family, clad in an unseasonably huge fur coat who bites into a ball of burrata like an apple under the summer sun. (Also, please give me the burrata.) Even those who don’t play into the larger narrative feel like they have a whole life before their appearance in The Hand of God and after; they don’t just exist for their brief time on screen.
Fabietto’s experiences give an episodic quality to the film, especially in its first two acts. Some portions work better than others, but it all contributes to a remarkably detailed picture of adolescence at a specific time and place. Sex and cinema loom large in Fabietto’s life, even if he hasn’t yet experienced much of either. The promise of the former is as omnipresent as it often is in teenage life, here through exposed breasts, unrequited crushes, and unexpected offers. However, the lush, distinctly Italianness of it all adds even more sensuality than is already present with Fabietto’s voluptuous aunt Patrizia (a beautiful, bruised Luisa Ranieri). Meanwhile, Fabietto says he hasn’t seen too many movies himself — other than repeat viewings of a battered VHS copy of Once Upon a Time in America — but Fellini and Bertolucci hover just off screen, and Naples’ own Antonio Capuano (Ciro Capano) offers advice to the teen when he says he wants to make movies.
More emotionally resonant than many of Sorrentino’s other films, The Hand of God is distinctly personal in the stories it tells. Even in its particularity, it still feels more universal than his work about the cultural giants known to millions.With The Hand of God, Sorrentino truly proves himself a masterful filmmaker as he hits that sweet spot, expressing a tenderness for this time and these characters without ever dipping into sentimentality.
“The Hand of God” is on Netflix Wednesday.