The Hand of God (2021)
Paolo Sorrentino
2 hr 10 min, Drama, Italian

Do you have a story to tell?

  • Si.

Then spit it out.

            In one of the final scenes of Paolo Sorrentino’s 2021 film The Hand of God, the sixteen year old protagonist, Fabio Schisa, played with remarkable maturity and restraint by Filippo Scotti (uncomfortably similar to Timothée Chalamet in appearance and approach) meets filmmaker Antonio Capuano, played by Ciro Capano. The veteran director shares his idea of the film as a medium of story-telling, urging the young Fabio to take a harder look at the city from which he wanted to escape, to find stories in that city, and to tell those stories through cinema with a passion and a vision: ‘You must have something to say. Have you got something to say or not?’

            The Hand of God is a lot of things at once: it is Sorrentino’s ode to a city that has remained largely unchanged over the changing, tumultuous decades – Naples. It is a search for meaning, direction, purpose, beauty, identity, and a voice. It is a meditation on friendships, love, parenthood, relationships, and families. An attempt on coming to terms with inexplicable tragedy. A deliberation on youth, passion, and madness. A journey to discover one’s calling in life. A conversation on self-fashioning. A masterclass on what cinema means, and can do. An homage to Italian and American filmmaking traditions. A subtle celebration of Federico Fellini and his contribution to the cinematic medium. And, of course, a personal tribute to Diego Maradona for the bittersweet role he played not only in Sorrentino’s life but the lives of millions of unnamed fans in football cultures around the world.

            Set in Napoli of the 1980s, The Hand of God begins with the camera looking at the city from the outside. As the filmmaker’s gaze zooms in, we leave behind the breath-taking beauty of the Neapolitan skyline, and get a more nuanced insider’s look at the city, with its quirks and kinks, fears and aspirations, dreams and dirt, its traffic and its traps. Yet, there is beauty even in the underbelly of this city, an suspecting beauty which might escape the eyes of the residents of Naples but which catches strangers, visitors, tourists, travellers, and returning prodigal children by surprise. The camera follows the lives of the locals in a slow, languid, unhurried manner, as though Sorrentino has all the time in the world to tell all the little stories of all the people of Naples which others might pass off as insignificant. Sorrentino lived in Naples for thirty-seven years, returning to the city decades later as an established filmmaker. He knew the city intimately, the place where he grew up and spent his formative years; yet his lens lingers over details in this film like a lover discovering the beloved for the first time. He turns several of his characters into caricatures and types, as an outsider would, yet with the shrewdness and the observation that only an insider can have. While deliberating on the general and how the holy trinity of religion, football and film impact Napoli, Sorrentino’s camera focuses in on the particular: Fabietto and his dysfunctional Italian family, comprising an absent presence in the form of a sister who colonises the bathroom; his parents, who live and die together, whistling to each other like lovebirds, and yet, with secrets to hide in their closets; his brother, a would-be actor; his uncles, aunts, and cousins.

            The very presence of Fabio is a challenge to the idea of the male-hero, and, in particular, to the masculinity and machismo espoused by certain other Italian, male type-characters, including, for instance his uncle who frequently beats up his ‘mad’ wife, Patrizia, played with immense vulnerability by Luisa Raniera. Fabio is petit, uncharacteristically quiet and introspective for a boy his age, and is interested in philosophy, films, literature and theatre, a perfect foil to the loud, boisterous virility of the Italian man of the 1980s. His unusual friendship with a smuggler, an older fellow, big, broad, tall, strapping, and muscular reiterates, visually and thematically, Fabietto’s softness – a quality also accentuated by his gentle, non-judgemental understanding of Aunt Patrizia’s ‘madness,’ despite his young, hormonal, lustful feelings for her.

            The Hand of God is an autobiographical, self-reflective, intensely personal film by Sorrentino which talks about the unexpected tragedy that befalls the protagonist, and how he is freakishly, miraculously saved by the hand of god, a reference to both divine graces and the soccer superstar, Maradona, who, Sorrentino argues, can be ‘understood through a relationship with the divine.’ The melancholic mood of the story-telling, heightened in the second half, after the tragedy strikes, can be anticipated right from the opening shots, despite the humour (sometimes forced), and the surreal elements in the narrative. The haunting instrumental soundtrack of the film adds to this melancholy mood.

Fabio is desperate to leave Naples to escape the tragedy that has become synonymous with home. The film ends with a nearly three minute long shot of the protagonist on a train, making his way out of a town that had him trapped. Sorrentino returned to Naples, even though it took him a while. Will Fabio also return to confront, or make peace with his ghosts, someday? For me, the film ends with questions: how far can we escape from reality? How far can we fly on the wings of our imagination? Is cinema, as Capuano, referencing Fellini, suggests, a mode of escape from our sordid reality? Despite our urge to break free, how far can we go from our roots?

Sensuous, sensitive, seductive, The Hand of God is like a bildungsroman, telling us the coming-of-age story of a young boy, and the agony and excitement of youth. With an unstructured, non-linear story-telling style, Sorrentino’s film remains with us long after the end-credits and the strains of Pino Daniele’s “Napule è” have faded, incandescent, haunting, achingly beautiful.