Like Fellini, Paolo Sorrentino isn’t one to shy away from cinematic excess, quite the contrary as is obvious with his Oscar-winning masterwork The Great Beauty. And yet, with his latest and most personal film, The Hand of God (È stata la mano di Dio), he mindfully vacillates between telling a compelling, intimate family tale and peppering it with wildly outrageous, yet wholly believable, characters.
Set in the topsy-turvy Naples of the 1980s (although when has Naples not been a city on the edge), the film centers on 16-year-old Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti, in a breakout performance) who lives with his fun prankster mother (Teresa Saponangelo) and Communist father (Sorrentino favorite Toni Servillo) as well as his actor-wannabe older brother (Marlon Joubert). They laugh. They argue. They eat. They worry about money. They’re superstitious. And they love soccer. Oh, wait, I forgot about the sister. And that’s because she’s always in the bathroom. Always. I mean, she NEVER comes out. All is well—until a terrible tragedy strikes. And a soccer game saves a life. And Fabietto must wake up to certain painful truths about life and loss.
Fabietto has a slew of fascinating relatives like his slightly deranged Zia Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri) who exists to conflate religion and sex in his mind and, well, in other places, although, Fabietto loses his virginity to the most unlikely of women in a touching and very strange scene.
In an extended and hilarious sequence, the entire family gathers to wait impatiently for an overweight relation to arrive with her new fiancé. For the family, there is little hope she will be bringing home Prince Charming. When she does finally arrive with her beau, the situation is even worse than anyone expected. In the same scene jokester mom keeps taunting and teasing the matriarch who grossly eats mozzarella with her hands and spouts vulgarities. For someone like me, who grew up in an Italian household these moments were very familiar and extremely funny. But no one else in my press preview audience was laughing. Was it because Italian humor doesn’t translate well (a valid argument)? Or is it that we just cannot allow ourselves to laugh at anything that is deemed vulgar or inappropriate, anymore? I guess I’ll have to bake my uncles into meat pies before Thanksgiving. Too much? Sorrentino has yet to capitulate to the Twitterati and rewrite history by making his characters bland and politically sensitive to today’s loud powderpuff minority.
The only place where The Hand of God goes a bit off the rails is with a particular subplot involving a cigarette smuggler. It’s a minor criticism of such a deeply autobiographical work.
There is a quote from Fellini in the movie: “Cinema is a distraction from reality, which is lousy.” Sorrentino is diving into his own truth—his own reality and giving it a cinematic spin to perhaps, attempt to exorcise some of his demons, mourn his loved ones, but to also show us that life can surprise us, just like film can. And some of us might, in turn, find a way to weave tragic events into our being and create sublime works that pay tribute to those we lost—as he has done here.
The Hand of God of one of 2021’s best films.
The Hand of God is in Italian with English subtitles and will open in theaters and on Netflix in December.