Venice FF 2021

The Hand of God review – Sorrentino returns to form with an intimate coming-of-ager

The Great Beauty filmmaker delivers a funny and moving drama about a Naples teen whose life is saved by Diego Maradona

Paolo Sorrentino wasn’t quite in need of a comeback, but The Hand of God feels like one nonetheless. The Italian director, who won an Oscar and global acclaim for his Fellini-inspired The Great Beauty eight years ago, hasn’t quite been on top form since: 2015’s Youth was a moderate success and Berlusconi satire Loro was a critical disappointment outside Italy.

So when Netflix came knocking, Sorrentino set to work on his most personal film yet. A sprawling ensemble piece about impoverished Naples during the 1980s and an intimate coming-of-age film about Sorrentino’s profoundly challenging adolescence, The Hand of God is certainly his best film in almost a decade.

A 130-minute epic with enough beginnings and endings for three films, Sorrentino’s latest certainly takes its time to get going. We start on Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), a beleaguered woman searching for a way out of an abusive relationship. When her domestic suffering becomes too much, she calls sister Maria (Teresa Saponangelo), who swiftly turns up with husband Savelio (Tony Servillo, of course) and their youngest son Fabietto (Filippo Scotti). Fabietto is Sorrentino’s proxy, and ours. After the writer-director spends 45 minutes or so setting the elaborate scene of eighties Naples, Fabietto’s perspective predominates.

Sorrentino introduces the social scene of his youth with care and humour. That eccentric bunch includes Fabietto’s stunted big brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert), a cancer-suffering former police officer and pastry chef, and an aunt known as “the meanest woman in southern Italy” – accurately. Sequences involving the entire ensemble are electric.

But events never quite revolve around adolescent Fabietto. Still unsure of his identity and unable to assert his independence, the handsome teen with an array of unrealistically gorgeous shirts is a side character in his own movie. Yet when a traumatic accident changes his family formula forever – the same tragedy which really happened to Sorrentino – little Fabietto must mature rapidly. Fabio is born.

The Hand of God isn’t a depressing or even a particularly sad film, despite a series of unfortunate events to which Fabietto is a powerless witness. Sorrentino’s decision to keep things light is a canny one: the emotional immaturity of The Hand of God, in large parts, reflects Fabietto’s own. The same applies to their evangelical faith in Maradona, who Sorrentino declares even before the opening credits as “the greatest football player of all time.” Whether or not he’s right – smart money says he isn’t – the intensity of Fabietto and Sorrentino’s conviction that Diego is the greatest fuels the distinct Neapolitan identity on which The Hand of God is built.

It certainly isn’t built on much else. Sorrentino’s visual influences have always been hard to place and it's no different here. What does define his style, however, is a substantial (possibly excessive) commitment to the human face. At one point Aunt Patrizia shows Fabietto a wonderful view, explaining how moved she is and what Fabietto ought to focus on. We don’t even see it. No matter. The Hand of God, we’re keenly reminded, is about the people and not too much else. And what a crowd. Servillo is expectedly wonderful as Fabietto’s unlikely role model father, while Saponangelo gets the meatier role of a maternal icon with a sick sense of humour.

As far as the Fellini influences go, the seminal Italian’s own coming-of-age film about teens on the periphery, I Vitelloni, seems the most relevant. Not that this matters either. The Hand of God may have some lofty ideas about the importance of inspiration and the role of the divine, but, like in Fellini’s best works, the clues are always in the faces.

The Hand of God was screened as part of the Venice Film Festival 2021. It will be released on Netflix on 24 November.

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