The Hand of God – Meant to be
After Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, it’s the turn of yet another high-caliber filmmaker to receive a carte blanche from streaming giant Netflix. Following the trend of other films produced by the controversial streaming platform, The Hand of God, Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film, had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Jury Grand Prize and the Marcello Mastroianni Award for best debutant actor. In a fashion that is opposite to the typical evolutionary path of a director, the film is a coming-of-age story that distances itself from Sorrentino’s prior preoccupation with excessive protagonists, corrupt politicians, or decadent writers. If this sounds a bit like Cinema Paradiso, the biopic of another Italian director that fictionalized his calling for cinema through the medium of adolescence, The Hand of God resists the temptations of sentimentalism and gives itself to a form that is similar to memory, cobbled together from fragments connected to each other with fragility.
Set in the eighties in the director’s natal Naples, the film revisits a pivotal moment that forced him to mature and which shaped his adulthood. In this sense, Sorrentino focuses on the Schisa clan, an eccentric middle-class family, in order to create a tribute to the town, just as Fellini did in the case of Rome, in I Vitelloni. Naples is one of the film’s extra characters from the get-go when the town is captured in a long single shot, which stops upon a traffic jam only for it to continue with a panoramic shot of the line that is forming in a bus stop. The crowd of people is slowly shot from a below eye-level, subjective angle, thus underlining the dramatic nature of the faces lying in waiting. The opening scene is a tribute to the first couple of minutes in 8 ½, and not quite the only such reference throughout the feature, and seems to lead towards a baroque direction, the very same that became the signature of Sorrentino’s cinema. Its magical realism is anchored in the revisitation of the Neapolitan myths of Saint Gennaro (January), the town’s patron saint, and that of the child monk, in a very personal fashion of representing miracles. But the film’s true religious experience is the deification of Maradona, who, once having been transferred from FC Barcelona, brings back the torch of hope to a fallen Naples. All of the film’s important moments take place against the backdrop of the matches played by the greatest football player in history, as Sorrentino credits him in the prolog, and the ritualistic manner of watching a football match is an ersatz for the cinephile development of the protagonist, Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti). The story’s main thread elevates the sporting abilities of the legendary football player at the level of art, and one scene in which he makes a fugitive appearance before the confirmation of his transfer at Naples almost comes across as an epiphany.
Remaining in the realm of football, The Hand of God is visibly fractured between two rounds; the film is split in before and after, who differ from each other from a formal standpoint. The first part is a classical tour de force that is typical to the Neapolitan director, ostentatious and politically incorrect. If there is one term that sums up Sorrentino’s style, that would be flamboyant. In the universe of his extended family, nothing apart from Maradona (and, maybe, aunt Patrizia) is holy, everything is taken in stride; from the misanthropic and fussy old lady who feasts herself upon handfuls of mozzarella, to the obese aunt, the neighbor who draws phalluses in the most inappropriate places imaginable, to the communist banker father, who is performed by the chameleonic Toni Servillo. A celebration of escapism and of a lost modus vivendi derives from Sorrentino’s ability to meld contradictions together, using a tone that oscillates between touching and furious, critical while still tender, passing from the vulgar to the sublime from one moment to the other. After realizing that her marriage is not what it seems, mother Maria Schisa (Teresa Saponangelo) has a nervous breakdown, which is reflected at times by Fabietto with an almost convulsive answer. A few moments later, the paroxysm turns transcendental, celebrating the successes of Maradona in an emotional reclaiming of Naples’ sense of community.
Up to a certain point, it seems that Fabietto is a side-character in his own film, as the protagonist seems to be the Mediterranean spirit itself, in Sorrentino’s understanding of it; the exuberance of an eternal summer combined with a debauched exhibition of bodies, no matter their shape; the celebration of the voluptuousness of feminine curves and the overwhelming, never-censored reactions to them. Fellini remains a point of reference for Sorrentino, up to the point in which he even becomes a character that is within earshot, but that is never visible and is mystified. Akin to his idol, Sorrentino describes reality through the means of surrealism, of an exaggeration that aims to extract beauty from the most unpredictable situations, and the scene where Fabietto loses his virginity is a worthy descendant of the equivalent scene in Amarcord. Fabietto echos the male gaze through his fascination towards his exhibitionistic aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), this stereotypical Malèna from the Italian erotic mythos, but his curiosity towards her is not strictly sensual in nature.
The film’s tone slips into the personal area in its second half, where Fabietto becomes the unwilling protagonist of his own life. The transition from a purely observant character, that never intervenes, to one that is led by his own initiatives, is probably Sorrentino’s weakest point. By attempting an intimist approach, that is inappropriate given how the filmmaker has constructed his cinematic universe, Sorrentino becomes clumsy. Seemingly imitating the effects of the real event that affected his life, he becomes even impotent. The easy-going tone loses its transparency and has difficulties in finding its place. The Hand of God produces some moments which have a sublime beauty to them, such as the one in which a man is hanging from the ceiling of the Umberto I art gallery, a recurrent image that reminds of the author’s block in 8 ½, which was also illustrated by a man that was hanging in the air, but the dispersion and the lack of context of such moments render them shallow. At no point do we understand why Fabietto decides to become a director, and his motivations never transcend a superfluous level of explanations. Curiously enough, the Neapolitan director is much more sincere when he steps out of line than in the moments when he is trying to express (himself). The protagonist avidly looks at the world, and we gaze alongside him, but he looks through the people in it, rather than looking at them.
In this sense, in the second part of the film, its cinematic virtuousness is replaced by an editing style whose abrupt cuts visibly put a stop to emotions, and the color palette starts to fade away. In an attempt to recover a semblance of its initial exuberance, innocent sequences such as the one of the nocturnal escapade alongside a lively smuggler are alternated with confessional ones, but the spell has already been broken. Maybe it’s precisely the lack of distance from the subject that prevents Sorrentino from being self-reflexive without stumbling into the pitfalls of patheticism. In a forcefully revelatory scene, the protagonist follows Antonio Capuano, a Neapolitan director who was also a teacher to Sorrentino in real life, but, from the script’s perspective, his confrontation with his idol never surpasses the limits of self-evident truths. Following the mythical connection between the famous goal in the 1986 World Cup quarter-finals, which also lends itself in the film’s title, and the protagonist’s predestination, at times, the story simply seems to get out of his hands. However, from a cinematic point of view, the sequence set in an artificial cave that is invaded by the waves of the sea is living proof of the fact that Sorrentino is much better at expressing himself through the recreation of an unfiltered personal universe than at describing it.