Continuing the recent trend of semi-autobiographical films from famous directors, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God paints a very particular picture of one brief period in a young man’s life and how it can shape the future.
Filippo Scotti stars as Fabietto Schisa, a teenager living in 1980s Naples, Italy with his brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert), his mother Maria (Teresa Saponangelo), and his father Saverio (Toni Servillo). Despite not having many friends or a girlfriend, Filippo lives an uncomplicated life full of family gatherings, pranks, and dreaming of soccer star Diego Maradona coming to his hometown club.
Fabietto doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, but he is interested in cinema and accompanies Marchino to audition for roles. Both brothers dream about their emotionally troubled, but wildly attractive aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri). When tragedy strikes the family, Fabietto is forced to grow up at a much faster pace than he was ready for.
The film is split into two distinct halves. The first half focuses on the idyllic, but innocuous existence of Fabietto and his family. There are certainly eccentricities and struggles within their family, but there is a feeling of direction and momentum. Once the tragedy happens, Fabietto becomes aimless but adventurous. His main emotion is that he doesn’t know how to express his emotions and how it’s supposed to drive his life going forward.
Much like Belfast before it, the film is more of a series of lightly connected memories. The primary difference is the clear point of view from the memory of a teenager, compared to that of a child. Sorrentino’s memories of his childhood include all the bad without this rose-colored view of his parents and family. This is not a slight on Belfast, but this is viewing the world through the horny, bored, optimistic eyes of a teenager – emphasis on the horny.
The gaze of Fabietto is firmly towards the face and body of his aunt Patrizia. She has some unexplained mental instability, which causes her to sunbathe fully nude on a family retreat and act strangely around the family. This wildness and proximity are major focal points for Fabietto. His own development has yet to be fully realized so his fantasies are limited to those in his general vicinity.
Scotti appears in almost every scene and is more of an empty canvas than a fully-realized character. This is intentional as these actions just happen to Fabietto as opposed to him steering the action. His characterization is solid and he is easy to root for. His surrounding family is filled with assorted characters, including his foul-mouthed grandmother and assorted aunts and uncles.
Servillo gives the best performance as a man who desperately loves his wife but still has his obvious faults. He and Saponangelo have vital chemistry that anchors Fabietto with a foundation. Both actors, despite having their moments of seriousness, also provide a much-needed sense of levity. Joubert also does a fine job as an incredibly sweet and intuitive brother.
The film showcases the natural beauty of Naples without lingering on it. Some filmmakers use their setting as the true star of the film, while Sorrentino uses it as a well-lit supporting character.
The Hand of God might not be the most fulfilling of adolescent stories, but you can tell Sorrentino put his all into it. More than anything, it’s beautiful to look at.
The Hand of God is now streaming on Netflix