Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God (È stata la mano di Dio): Family, Football, Film, and Fate
We live in a world where the news is more often than not a dreary bummer, where the headlines feel like a never-ending stream of bad news, where the state of our nation, our planet, our species, our problems feel like a never-ending downward spiral, an endless void of despair. We need a great distraction, and movies are perhaps one of the best ones. Not only are they a great form of entertainment, but they also allow us to temporarily escape the lousiness of reality and let us be somewhere else. Paolo Sorrentino is a master of this escape, and in The Hand of God, he manages to create a great piece of entertainment centered on reminiscence and escapism. He takes us away from our world and into his own in Naples, where he grew up, and lets us share in the experience. This autobiographical drama is a story of his past, family, and home. But to call it a simple story of Sorrentino would be a misnomer; it is a complex tale about the intricacies and complexities of human relationships, and even more, it is a commentary on the human condition. There’s no mistaking that Sorrentino himself is the force behind this movie, and he has crafted a personal yet universal film that speaks both to the heart and mind.
Although the film’s title draws from Diego Maradona’s famous gesture during the 1986 World Cup, it is more about the hand that is the focus of the film. The Hand of God also refers to the divine intervention that leads to the protagonist’s life changing. Set in 1980s Naples, the movie starts with Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri) having a providential encounter with a Neapolitan patron saint and the mysterious local legend, ‘The Little Monk.’ Upon arriving home late to her crazy abusive husband, a domestic incident occurs, and she immediately calls her sister Maria for help which then introduces us to the Schisa family. This chaotic, slightly dysfunctional family lives in an apartment. They include young Fabietto (Filippo Scotti), the epitome of Sorrentino’s youth; the older brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert), an aspiring actor who is struggling to get his big break in a Fellini movie; the sister Daniela (Rossella Di Lucca), who always takes over their bathroom and is not seen until the end of the film; the father Saverio (Toni Servillo) a communist who works in a bank; and the mother Maria (Teresa Saponangelo) an ardent practical joker who likes to prank her loved ones and juggle for amusement or when stress levels mount up.
The first half of the film is all about the family dynamics and their relationships with one another. It’s important to pay attention to the fact that they are an extended family with relatives that I can describe as editorial cartoons having distinct features and personalities, with their idiosyncrasies and habits. Sorrentino does a fantastic job of depicting the familial relations of his characters. The family is dysfunctional and dysfunctional in ways one wouldn’t expect from a family; even how they behave in an Al Fresco lunch party or swimming in the Bay of Naples in a large wooden boat is not something one would normally expect from a family. What makes them stand out from the crowd of families is their eccentric behavior, sense of humor, and lack of any structure in their lives. There are no rules and boundaries, which makes the relationships seem even more free and spontaneous. It’s evident from the way the characters are, especially Patrizia, who likes to sunbathe naked in front of the extended family. They are intolerably in chaos and crazy in a good way, and they seem to be able to work out for themselves what could be common sense in other families. They all have their reasons to behave the way they do, and for Sorrentino, it’s a realistic expression of the human condition.
Since this is Sorrentino’s story, the film centers almost entirely on Fabietto and how he deals with the events of his life. Just like every coming-of-age movie, Fabietto goes through a series of discoveries and rediscoveries, both about himself and the world around him. He doesn’t have many friends except his brother, let alone a girlfriend, but his main focus is listening to music with his Walkman, the thought of studying philosophy in college, and just like every kid in Naples, football. Speaking of football, we know that his crazy obsession for European Football and Argentine football player Diego Maradona whose decision to play for Naples is a source of constant anxiety and excitement for him, his family, and the whole city. The city’s football club eventually acquired Maradona to play for them making Fabietto and Marchino the happiest people on earth while dealing with their parent’s marital problems. This exhilaration even soared during the 1986 World Cup when Maradona scored a goal during the Argentina v England quarterfinals match. The Schisas are watching it live on a small TV at the balcony of their upstairs neighbor Baroness celebrating the goal with the other apartment neighbors. Setting all the sports aside, a rediscovery for him is about his sexuality, which is a pivotal period in most boys’ and men’s lives. He is preoccupied with his aunt Patrizia, an erratic and sexually arousing woman. These are typical experiences you might expect from the life of a teenage boy, and we get to witness these with his older brother Marchino in the first hour. Fabietto is filled with curiosity and wonder, and that’s universal. We have all felt that way at some point in our lives, and Sorrentino delivers it to us well. He perfectly captures that feeling, the feeling of being a teenager without being overbearing, cutesy, or cloying.
While the film’s first half is filled with humor and liveliness, the second half is much more somber and much more dramatic. The film shifts gears almost immediately when divine intervention happens within the family. Fabietto’s life is irrevocably changed by the events that happen to him. The impact is so strong that it leaves him emotionally changed and scarred for the rest of the film. It is something that is new to him, and it’s something that he has to deal with forever. When you lose something, you gain something, but it’s something that changes you for the better. That is the perfect summary for the second half. A sense of maturity and responsibility comes from this change in his life. Watching films is his way of coping with the emotional turmoil he’s going through that made him show interest in cinema. Along this journey, he meets new and familiar faces different from his family and relatives. They are a source of contrast in his life and help him grow in new ways for his future. From his neighbor Baroness to a smuggler, an actress to a director, these people somehow helped him confront himself and the realities of the world and life. During the conversation with the director, is Antonio Capuano (Ciro Capano), a real-life director that gave Sorrentino his big break back in 1998 with The Dust of Naples, Fabietto tells him that he doesn’t like life anymore; he wants an imaginary life, like the one he had before. He adds that he doesn’t like the reality he is in, that reality is lousy. He is full of questions and doubt, and he’s unsure if he is on the right path. But he is certain that he wants to become a film director even though seeing only three or four films. His fate is in his own hands, and he needs to make the right choices, which he has successfully done.
Each character in the film is well-written. There’s a lot of depth, and everything we learn about them is different and makes sense. You can tell that the film is hinged on realism because of the way they are, the things they do, and the way they act. Everyone brought dynamism to their roles that you’ll feel every emotion. It’s all there, and if you pay attention to it, you’ll see the film’s beauty. Everyone does their parts with such dedication; they care so much. They brought the right amount of emotion and sincerity to their roles, which are the two elements that make up the film. Some are funny, some are serious, and some are odd, but they all ring true. The cast is just fantastic, but it’s Filippo Scotti’s performance as Fabietto that will stay with you forever. He is so charismatic and brilliant, and he brings you along with him on his journey. Every time he’s on-screen, his face tells us everything we need to know, and it’s all with such sincerity that you can’t help but be charmed by him. I don’t know how many actors can have such an impact on you. I’ve never been as emotionally moved by an actor as I was by him. It is incredible to feel that way when you’re watching a movie. When you see an excellent performance, you feel emotional and affected; you want to be moved to tears and be a part of their lives. Filippo, along with the rest of the cast, has that impact on you, which is what makes the film so beautiful, moving, and memorable.
As a huge fan of Federico Fellini, it makes sense that Sorrentino would make a film similar to the master’s work. The Hand of God can be compared to Fellini’s “Amarcord,” “I Vitelloni,” and “Roma.” Similarities in the plot are apparent, but the film is not trying to imitate the said films but rather take its elements and reinterpret them to tell Sorrentino’s life story. It’s pretty comical that he included the anecdote of Marchino auditioning for a Fellini movie. It’s a nice in-joke and shows how Sorrentino knows Fellini’s massive influence on him. It is clear that Sorrentino has been waiting his entire life to make this movie, and it shows in the performances and looks of every single scene. The naturalistic look of the film is something to applaud, and it’s a style that Sorrentino hasn’t really done before. To achieve this, he hired cinematographer Daria D’Antonio. She was able to capture the essence of 80s Naples in a way that is simple, unique, and freeing not just to Neapolitans but to the audience as well. They both make sure that every single frame of the film has a purpose of telling a story and, most importantly, a purpose of bringing the audience along with Fabietto’s journey. So, tracking shots are used throughout the film, but they are subtle and not overdone. There’s not much to say about the camera work except that it’s used effectively throughout, and it works to complement the performances. The narrative is even amplified with the melancholic score of Lele Marchitelli, strings that help intensify the film’s emotional moments. They all add to the quality of the film, and together, they create an atmosphere that is both beautiful and emotional and draw a parallel to the themes of love, loss, hope, and redemption.
“The Hand of God” is a reflection of the paradoxical nature of life and the importance of faith to face life’s challenges. It’s a deeply personal film that takes on family and youth as it tests the notion of how we deal with adversity. The cast is able to tell Sorrentino’s story through an incredible performance that is both heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time. They are all able to show you how important the decisions you make in your life are to your future and how they can shape the way you perceive yourself and the world around you. It’s an experience you’ll never want to forget. You’ll find yourself captivated by it, and you’ll have to look no further than Filippo Scotti’s Fabietto to understand what that means. He is the heart and soul of the film, and like the rest of the cast, he makes you see that life holds no regrets and that you have the ability to move forward. The film will touch you, even if you don’t expect it to, and it will change how you look at life. If you have a chance to see this film, take it. You won’t regret it. I promise that you’ll be moved, and you’ll be amazed.
The Hand of God is now streaming only on Netflix.