The Hand of God (2021)

Paolo Sorrentino | 2hr 10min

There is a Christian sort of mysticism woven very lightly into this coming-of-age memory piece, rising above the nostalgic realism which is often more present in other films of this kind. Roma had its fair share of transcendent scenes, and Belfast found wondrous flashes of colour bursting through its monochrome photography, but within Paolo Sorrentino’s gentle reflections on his adolescence in The Hand of God, fate and folklore are both just as real as anything in Italy’s rich, tangible culture. Fabio is our stand-in for the young director here, passing time in 1980s Naples listening to music, cheering for soccer player Diego Maradona, and dreaming of one day working in the film industry. Perhaps the clearest shared trait between the director and character though is their equal reverence for Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, evident in Sorrentino’s exquisite compositions that add touches of spiritual surrealism to the boy’s otherwise ordinary life. The Hand of God is patient, joyful, and tragic, threading a theological sense of destiny through the vignettes that lead Fabio to adulthood.

We are initially introduced to Fabio via his family, but even before then Sorrentino sets the scene with a magnificent helicopter shot flying us along the gorgeous coastline of Naples in an unbroken three-minute take. Aunt Patrizia is the first character we meet, and right away she is whisked away from a street corner by a mysterious chauffeur claiming to be San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples, to a grand palazzo where a magnificent, shining chandelier lays on the floor. Here, San Gennaro introduces her to the Little Monk, a sprite in Neapolitan mythology who may either bless or curse those who encounter it. When Patrizia returns home recounting her experience and claiming it has granted her a child, the rest of her family brushes her off as crazy, save for young Fabio.

An excellent opening with a three minute helicopter shot flying along the coastline of Naples, setting a scene for Fabio’s coming-of-age.
The chandelier fallen to the ground, yet still alight – perhaps one of the film’s strongest images in the lighting and surrealism.

Within this boisterous Italian family, Fabio is the only one who still holds onto some empathy for Patrizia, who among the others is consider an outcast for her erratic behaviour. Surrounding them is a huge ensemble of amusingly provocative relatives, many of whom don’t hold back in their vindictive judgements and taunts. They will happily call their overweight sister a “whale”, and merely hours after meeting someone’s disabled fiancé, they cruelly toss the battery of the electrolarynx device he uses to talk into the ocean. There is also an implied acceptance of each other’s iniquities though, as in sweet moments of fondness they all share lunch together along a table in the beautiful countryside, and idiosyncratically whistle to each other in an affectionate call-and-response.

An extensive family of distinguished personalities. Their strange mannerisms and conflict drive a lot of this narrative and always keep it engaging.
The detail in Sorrentino’s mise-en-scène paired with lighting and an excellent framing of his actors – a superb combination of many of his strengths.

Fabio himself is an image of idealistic youth, quieter and more observant than most of his family, and constantly wearing tiny headphones around his neck. The actor who plays him, Filippo Scotti, even bears a slight resemblance to Timothée Chalamet, and through this lens it is hard not to draw comparisons with Call Me By Your Name, which similarly follows a laidback coming-of-age narrative in 1980s Italy. Like Chalamet’s Elio, Fabio even has sex for the first time with someone many years his senior, experimenting sexually before being left to move on. But where Elio pursues music and academia as his primary interests, Fabio actively attends movie auditions and worships at the altar of soccer player Diego Maradona.

Period decor in the patterned tiling on the walls, building out a visually detailed world around Fabio.

It is from Maradona’s legendary goal at the 1986 World Cup quarter final that The Hand of God takes its name, the scoring itself being an unpenalised handling foul. With seemingly all of Naples behind him, this goal sends Fabio’s entire neighbourhood of apartment blocks into a joyous uproar, every family pouring out onto their balconies to celebrate in unison. It will go on to be an unforgettable day for many Italians, but for Fabio, the “hand of god” also comes to represent what might as well be divine intervention. While he watches the game with his extended family, his parents fall asleep on their couch, unknowingly succumbing to a gas leak that will soon prove lethal to them both, and which might have killed him too had he been home. Sorrentino half-jokes in interviews now that when this happened to him in real life, Maradona was the one who saved his life. To Fabio though, his survival was no accident.

A shot of pure tragedy, relegating Fabio to the background in the confines of this doorway the moment he becomes an orphan.

As we witnessed in the first scene, Christian mysticism isn’t entirely out of the question for these characters. It is present in both the narrative and Sorrentino’s transcendent visual artistry, especially in his tracking shots that move with quiet deliberation, like an invisible entity wandering alongside Fabio in his journey. Even more stylistically impressive though is Sorrentino’s ability to capture picturesque beauty across such a wide variety of Italian geography and culture, from its open coastal landscapes to the Mediterranean architecture and period-specific décor of 1980s interiors. He also stages his actors in quietly powerful formations in these spaces, using one such composition to mark the film’s tragic midpoint when Fabio breaks down at the hospital and is caught by the camera within the narrowed gap of a doorway.

The coastline of Naples continuing to serve as the foundation of Sorrentino’s stunning panoramas.

Given how much spirituality seeps into the small crevices of this film, we shouldn’t be surprised by the eventual return of the Little Monk at the end. It effectively bookends this narrative with two blessings, sending Fabio on his way to adulthood at the same point in time that Maradona’s team wins the World Cup, once again marking his journey with a parallel to the soccer champion. The surreal mysticism that subtly underlies The Hand of God is not just a private, spiritual treaty for Sorrentino, but a shared experience of community driven by the stories people share, whether those be historical sporting events, culture-defining films, or ancient Italian legends.

Seascapes, interior decor, and Italian architecture – Sorrentino wields steady control over every location in his film, whether natural or artificial, and always finds the most striking shots in his lighting and composition.

The Hand of God is currently streaming on Netflix.

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