'The Hand of God' Is a Coming-of-Age Journey Without a Destination Directed by Paolo Sorrentino
Starring Filippo Scotti, Luisa Ranieri, Enzo De Caro, Dora Romano, Renato Carpentieri, Toni Servillo, Teresa Saponangelo, Marlon Joubert, Rossella Di Lucca
Published Dec 13, 2021When football star Diego Maradona signed with Napoli in 1984, Neapolitans celebrated it like the coming of Christ. It was an event that fed all the hopes and dreams of the people he now represented on the soccer stage. Named after Maradona's goal in the quarter-finals of the 1986 FIFA World Cup, The Hand of God takes us back to that time and to the youth of writer-director Paolo Sorrentino. This semi-autobiographical portrait follows a teenager's journey on the cusp of manhood, and shows how his sports idol and his grief upend his life and set his future in motion. It's a personal and emotional tale that touches on many themes: fate, family, sports, cinema, love and loss. However, while these themes are earnest, Sorrentino leaves them half-baked, bogged down by a bloated story that doesn't feel like it ever goes anywhere, and where its protagonist goes without significant transformation.
The Naples that Sorrentino remembers is picturesque. As aerial shots introduce this sun-kissed and blissful work of God's hands, something divine lingers in the sea breeze. Playing on the theme of divinity is the film's introduction, which incorporates Naples' mythic tales of the child monk Monaciello and the patron saint San Gennaro (Enzo De Caro). They pay a visit to a woman named Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri) and grant her the wish to have a child. These opening scenes, taking place primarily in a decaying mansion with a broken chandelier on the floor, highlight an early example of Carmine Guarino's brilliant production design, which evolves as each home featured in the film is given its own personality. The production design almost tries to be a distraction from the unanswered significance of such figures in the story.
The film is told through the eyes of Fabietto (Filippo Scotti in a breakout role), an awkward teen growing up in the '80s. His personality is encompassed by the headphones he wears like an accessory, the walkman he sports on his belt, his love of soccer, and his virginity. On his birthday, his mother suggests they play hide and seek. He used to hide in his mother's wardrobe, but he no longer fits. He doesn't know where he fits among his vibrant, eccentric family; he doesn't feel he fits in his own skin or in the only place he's ever known. The Hand of God looks at the men and women who help shape him into the man he will later become and open him up to his desires.
The first half of the film is immensely humorous, entertaining and chaotic — like most family reunions. Fabietto and his family gather at his grandmother's seaside villa, anxiously awaiting the arrival of Maradona. These larger-than-life characters include the aforementioned grandmother, Signora Gentile (Dora Romano), who's the "meanest woman in Naples." She's so fed up with her family that she refers to them as "trash." There's Aldo, the new boyfriend of one of Fabietto's aunts, who speaks using an electrolarynx; elderly uncle Alfredo (Renato Carpentieri), who calls everyone a disappointment; and hot aunt Patrizia who strips naked in front of everyone to suntan, as Fabietto can't help but look with desire. Then there's Fabietto's parents, Saverio (Toni Servillo) and Maria (Teresa Saponangelo). Despite marital troubles, they're playful and very much in love even after years together, whistling to each other lovingly like their own secret language. There's Fabietto's naive older brother, Marchino (Marlon Joubert), who's an aspiring actor auditioning for Fellini, and their sister, Daniela (Rossella Di Lucca), rarely seen as she locks herself in the bathroom.
This get-together is full of laughter, food and drama, with Fabietto looking on in silence taking it all in. Their fast-paced conversations make it hard to keep track of who is who, like being invited to a gathering of people you don't know. Their love and hate, wicked words, and raised fists inadvertently make them much more interesting characters than Fabietto, and their absence in the second half of the film results in a much different, less enjoyable tone.
There are a few figures outside his family that also carry great importance in Fabietto's coming-of-age journey. While being his idol, in a twist of fate, the teen's passion for Maradona saves him from being a victim of tragedy, and his destiny is radically altered. Why God's hand spares him is something he must grapple with as he attempts to find an escape from the grief he is struck by in the film's latter half. This grief is crippling at first, the film touching on the different ways people grieve. He has a sense of freedom now that he doesn't know what to do with, and he seems much more unfamiliar within himself than he was before, staring at familiar objects like he no longer recognizes them. But it is through this experience — and a meeting with Sorrentino's own mentor, Antonio Capuano (Ciro Capano) — that steers Fabietto towards a future as a filmmaker. His newfound dislike of reality is to be replaced by the fantasy of the movies. One person in his life, however, the eccentric Baroness (Betty Pedrazzi), leaves a bad aftertaste as one interaction between her and Fabietto is incredibly uncomfortable and it's hard to shake off its perverted nature.
Fabietto goes through an emotional, heart-wrenching journey, and Scotti carries this anguish and grief masterfully, establishing himself as a true talent. Despite this, the reason why the film feels like it doesn't go anywhere is that we leave the character before we see him fully formed. In many ways, he's a blank slate — not yet an adult and no longer a boy — but the liberation to come for him is only on the precipice. He never finds any resolution in his emotional journey.
Many themes are touched on in The Hand of God, albeit in a disorganized way, but the strongest is what it means to be young and how fleeting it is. Children are carefree, able to live in the moment, and see life through rose-coloured glasses. But Fabietto knows that eventually those lenses break, and no matter how hard we strive for happiness, it's naïve to think it's easy when the future is so uncertain. (Netflix)