In movies as disparate and vividly imagined as Il Divo, Loro, the Oscar winning The Great Beauty, as well as English language efforts like This Must Be The Place, Youth, and his TV miniseries The Young Pope and The New Pope Paolo Sorrentino has always seemed to be a director with a large brush and even more of a Fellini influence in some cases. That is why his latest, a largely autobiographical coming of age film called The Hand Of God which just had its World Premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and is next headed this weekend to Telluride, is such a departure, one absent the usual flourish the director often favors. Instead is an enormously effective and touching personal memoir of growing up in Naples circa the 1980’s. In many ways this is Sorrentino’s Amarcord, Day For Night, Cinema Paradiso,Pain And Glory, but first and foremost a knowing and engaging film from a director ready for the first time, on film at least, to look deeply inward for inspiration.
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After a disturbing opening sequence that seems to indicate a movie more of Sorrentino’s past filmography than what this one becomes, the focus is directly aimed on Fabietto Schisa (newcomer Filippo Scotti), a 16 year old kid from Naples, more prone to hanging with his family and adults than those his own age, a wide-eyed innocent not really easily defined like others his age. We meet him and the immediate and extended members of the Schisa family as Sorrentino presents him going about his life obsessed by the far flung idea that soccer great Diego Maradona might be lured to join the lowly local Naples-based team, seemingly a fantasy out of reach. When 20 year old older brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert) poses a question of getting laid by their voluptuous Aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri) or having Maradona play for Naples, the choice was easy for Fabietto: Maradona.
This quest for the great sports star is all the background of the film’s first half which also chronicles the stuff of family including the strong bond, but sometimes rocky relationship of his parents played nicely by Sorrentino veterans Toni Servillo as Saverio and Teresa Saponangelo as Maria. Despite ups and downs this is a loving family life for Fabietto who is looking to his own future, still very much in development. When Marchino gets an opportunity to interview as an extra in a Fellini movie that has come to town he doesn’t get the gig, but it is Fabietto who peeks behind the doors of the production and we can see the seeds of his own potential future in films. A tragic accident though causes the idyllic story to take a dark turn halfway through, and as happened to Sorrentino in real life, he and his siblings (there is also a sister who is not Sorrentino’s focus here but rather the butt of a running joke around the bathroom) are orphaned. It becomes a seminal moment especially for Fabietto who has a near-breakdown at the hospital that will later beome the impetus for a film that comes directly from his life. In fact it is this film, and that person is Paolo Sorrentino who describes The Hand Of God simply as a movie of “fate, family, sports and cinema, love and loss”. A perfect summation. In fact the title comes from something Maradona once said himself about a key play during the 1986 World Cup.
This is the first time Sorrentino has returned to Naples for one of his films since his 2001 feature directorial debut, One Man Up, and the city is truly a key character in the film, especially because of that period when it became the center of the Italian sports universe thanks to dreams realized from Maradona. Although not every incident with Fabietto mirrors what actually happened to Sorrentino, clearly it is all shaped by the times and his growing desire to get out and move on to a different life, especially after the loss of his parents. Some scenes stand out including one with a much, much older woman, the Baronessa Focale (memorably played by Betti Pedrazzi) in which she carefully guides him through the loss of his virginity. Another involves the real life director Antonio Capuano (played by Ciro Capano) who is making a movie there that fascinates Fabietto that leads to an almost surreal meeting of the minds between the pair as Capuano gives him a toughlove lecture on following his passions and making cinema that matters. In fact Sorrentino’s mentor turned out to be Capuano, and the two also wrote a 1998 screenplay together Polvere di Napoli, another film with Naples at its center. Yet another unforgettable encounter is later with the aforementioned, but troubled, Aunt Patrizia who gets a visit from Fabietto when she is confined to an institution but is still capable of inspiring her nephew.
Scotti is a star in the making, perfectly balances the confusion and vulneribility of a young man at a crossroads, even if he isn’t quite sure what that is. In terms of the sheer talent exhibited here he is reminiscent of an Italian Timothee Chalamet, and Sorrentino’s camera clearly loves him. Joubert is also impressive as Marchino, a young man without the inherent urgency or driving needs of his younger brother and perhaps relegated to a life in Naples. Servillo and Saponangelo are wonderful together as you might expect, taking on supporting roles, as does Ranieri, intriguing and lovely as Patrizia.
Daria D’Antonia’s lilting cinematography adds much to the glow of this very personal, but in its own ways very universal remembrance. The Hand Of God is also a reminder we are also in the hand of one of cinema’s modern masters.
Netflix will release the film , produced by Sorrentino and Lorenzo Mieli, in the U.S. in theatres first and then streaming this December.