‘The Hand Of God’: Paolo Sorrentino Touches Divinity With An Evocative Coming Of Age Magnum Opus [Venice Review]

“I don’t like reality anymore. Reality is lousy,” teenager Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti) says mournfully at a crucial, spiritually lonely moment in Paolo Sorrentino’s evocative new coming of age story, “The Hand Of God.” Sitting on a mountain, looking to the sky, the heavens, for answers, Fabietto should know. Reality has given him a raw deal; tragedy and heartbreak, the kind that no kid should experience that young. The teen must decide: will he let despondency and suffering define him, or will he find purpose in his imagination, far, far away from the cruel reality he’s had to endure. And what meaning can we derive in senseless pain, if anything? These are just a few, but not all, the big existential questions Sorrentino poses in “The Hand Of God,” his most intimate and personal work, his magnum opus, and sorry, “The Great Beauty,” easily his best film. And if audacity of style and temperament often define the Italian director’s oeuvre, then ‘God’ is one of his most restrained and mature movies, putting artifice aside and brimming with sincerity.

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So much nostalgic longing, wistful joy, and melancholic anguish marks Sorrentino’s outstanding new dramedy, but also superstition and perhaps how the devotion to one unlikely savior protected a lost soul and even inadvertently helped put his future in motion. A semi-autobiographical work based on the heartache of his youth, Sorrentino’s experienced a life-altering personal tragedy at the age of 16. The young teen should have been on a fateful trip that robbed him of loved ones and met a similar end, but his loyalty to footballer Diego Maradona, who played for the teenager’s hometown S.S.C Napoli soccer club at the time, meant he stayed home. Destiny intervened, and or, as Sorrentino views it, the five-foot-five Argentinian soccer player imposed his will and unintentionally saved his life.

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Yet, this is no soccer film nor a gut-punching film of despair and misfortune. Sorrentino swirls all these experiences together—love, life, laughter, loss, fate, and a sanctuary found in cinema—in a beautifully plaintive, comical, and sprawling novel of a movie.  It’s a lovely, charming, vibrant, sad, bildungsroman tale and roman-fleuve that pays small tribute to Maradona. But more importantly, it manages to both memorialize this agonizing turning point in his life and warmly reminisce on the bliss that came before it. Flecked with moments of the absurd, it succeeds in balancing a lighthearted tone with somber ones, somehow easing in and out with so much grace. It’s a rueful love letter to Naples, to family, and the pain that shaped him, and it’s wonderful and sentimental in the very finest sense of the word.

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Scotti stars as the teenaged Fabietto Schisa, the Sorrentino surrogate, a typically awkward teenager struggling to find his place in the world. Girls are elusive, desire is perplexing, life in the arts isn’t even on the table, and Napoli is so far away from having a winning team. But there’s so much happiness and hilarity to be found in his playful and eccentric family, his gentle and easygoing father Saverio (Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo) and his impish mother Maria (Teresa Saponangelo, who centers in one of the most side-splittingly funniest scenes of mischievous jest you’ll see all year). There’s also Fabietto’s favorite, Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), his sensual, voluptuous, larger-than-life and mentally ill aunt that he and every one of the men in the family lust over (Sorrentino’s wonderful ensemble also includes Massimiliano Gallo and Renato Carpentieri, as his kooky, but divinatory uncle).

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Inexpressible lust and growing desires you’re just learning to grapple are par for the course with teenage boys, obviously, and Patrizia’s proclivity to sunbathe naked in front of the entire family on seaside trips yields many scenes of comic hilarity. Yet, her life is filled with tragic moments, too, and the desire and longing also speak to Fabietto’s yearning to anchor himself in the post-tragic confusion of loss (his aunt is also a dramatic and importantly prophetic character in contrast with his blithe family). Bugged-eyed men, grotesquely gawking at bosoms, certainly conjures the notion of Federico Fellini, and the Italian maestro is certainly a major touchstone for Sorrentino here, though perhaps something less phantastic and relatively more grounded, reminiscent of say, “Amarcord.”

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The great auteur looms in the film’s background, much like Maradona does, when his brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert) tries to audition for one of his films shooting in town. Fellini is also more expressly suggested in the film’s one truly surreal scene featuring Patricia and a mythological little boy monk figure — a curious and arguably inexplicable scene for those who may not know Neapolitan myths but haunting and striking, nonetheless. Sorrentino seems to be reckoning with Fellini’s legacy and how he treated female characters as buxom caricatures. Sorrentino seemingly tries to flip and redeem that narrative; characters like Patricia, his mother, and his essential neighbor, the Baroness (Betti Pedrazzi), are more than just objects of thirst, and all pivotal characters are treated with affection and great warmth.

Threaded in the background of this story of chance and heartache is the eponymous Maradona’s 1986 FIFA World Cup goal against England, dubbed “the hand of God,” at the time because the footballer scored the goal off his hand, yet the referees did not witness it at the time. But again, soccer or sport isn’t the movie’s fixation, rather the intermingling of devotion and fate. Even Maradona joining S.S.C Napoli at the time—the poorest team in all of Italy—seemed like an absurd joke, a cosmic act of divine intervention that Sorrentino finds the humor and significance in.  
Aesthetically, the aforementioned bravura of Sorrentino’s style usually manifests through visual hyperbole, sometimes vulgar excess, often accompanied by a restless, feverish camera. But emotionality is king here, and so apart from a few crucial moments, Sorrentino’s camera lays very still and quiet, at the most, creating some colorfully choreographed tableaus and sun-dappled frames during the halcyon years. Music is rarely used, but it soars, unearthing such a crucial and deeply ravishing feeling when it hits.  

Not to be that guy, and normally this isn’t a concern, but it’s already difficult to see a scenario where “Hand Of God” isn’t another Best International Film Oscar winner or at least major contender, it’s that good, and it’s bound to resonate. Layered, rich, complex, and chock full of ideas, Sorrentino’s latest is, in some ways, a great summarizing artistic statement. It features all his obsessions, the constant probing questions of faith, the search for meaning in life, and how far we distance ourselves from our youth with each passing day. “I did what I could; I don’t think I did that bad,” Maradona once said reflectively. Sorrentino’s deeply affecting effort is just as modest in its own way but is just as grand and beautiful, if not more, than his more opulent works. [A]

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