Review: Italian Auteur Paolo Sorrentino Goes Autobiographical for a Small but Mighty The Hand of God

Feeling like his most autobiographical outing to date, Academy Award-winning writer/director Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo, The Great Beauty) brings us The Hand of God, the story of Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti), a young man growing up in Naples during the 1980s. The film begins rather casually, seemingly without any real stakes. The biggest drama in Fabietto’s life is whether the legendary footballer Diego Maradona will come to town to be on the city’s local team. Fabietto gets along with his parents—father Saverio (Toni Servillo) and mother Maria (Teresa Saponangelo)—and his siblings, as well as his extended family, whom we get to know through a series of gatherings.

The Hand of God
Image courtesy of Netflix

His favorite relative is his aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), whom he finds himself vaguely attracted to, probably because she has a tendency to take off her clothes whenever she feels like it. It turns out Patrizia is actually deeply emotionally troubled, using her sexuality as a means to taking her mind off her much bigger issues. Fabietto also finds himself increasingly more interested in the cinema, as various directors come to town to do location shooting, giving him time to observe the filmmaking process and how a director both creates and runs the set with authority.

At about the time we begin to believe The Hand of God is going to be a plotless series of vignettes about Fabietto’s experiences as a youth, tragedy befalls his family, turning the film from a succession of life-affirming joys into one of life-defining loss, which forces him to grow up fast and figure out the path he wants his life to take from this point forward.

A somewhat surreal encounter with the family’s upstairs neighbor, Baronessa Focale (Betty Pedrazzi), followed by an almost confrontational exchange with the filmmaker Antonio Capuano (Ciro Capano), seems to snap Fabietto out of his depression, leaving him all the more determined to break through in the world as an artist and tell stories that mean something to him and reflect the world in the way he sees it. Although not all of Sorrentino’s films feel as personal as The Hand of God, they do express themselves as uniquely his own. It’s always fascinating to watch the building blocks of someone’s journey be set down in front of them, either by choice or by fate, and this story features a great deal of both, clearly setting the course toward making the director one of Italy’s most interesting modern creators. The film doesn’t feature quite the bold strokes that some of his previous works do, but that wouldn’t be appropriate for this small but eye-opening and fully realized origin story.

The film is now streaming on Netflix.

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Steve Prokopy

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