Given the titular allusion to footballing royalty Diego Maradona, it is fitting that The Hand of God plays out as a tale of two halves. Paolo Sorrentino’s latest – a deeply personal coming-of-age tale played out against a gorgeous Neapolitan canvas – pivots from a carefree opening hour into an altogether deeper, insular second half.
The set-up is fairly well trodden. Fabietto (Filippo Scotti) is grappling with teen angst; unsure of who he is, and what he could be. Sorrentino’s avatar therefore clings to his hometown football team, Napoli, for a sense of purpose. The talk of the city is that Diego Maradona may soon join the club, something which Fabietto takes hugely seriously.
Throw in some adolescent lusting over beguiling but troubled Aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri) and the opening hour is layered with inter-familiar humour and a warmly comic script. When asked why the family doesn’t have a television remote, preferring instead to use a long stick to change the channels, Fabietto’s father Saverio (Sorrentino favourite Toni Servillo) notes he is “not a Communist.” More so, a moment of inter-marital tension is cut into shreds when Saverio is informed that Maradona is indeed on his way to Naples.
So far, so familiar, but the film’s title takes on a new meaning when tragedy strikes. Instead of just the term given to Maradona’s infamous intervention against England at the 1986 World Cup, it instead reflects the unstoppable influence of fate. Fabietto’s life is turned upside down, and the film’s second act begins in earnest. It’s in this secondary phase that Sorrentino begins to stretch the edges of the story, and is rewarded through an excellent performance from Scotti, as the young man is forced onto a new path.
Given Sorrentino’s previous films, it is no surprise that The Hand of God is beautifully stylised. While La Grande Bellaza was a surrealist missive on the timelessness of Rome, The Hand of God is a naturalistic love-letter to Naples. Indeed, the opening scene is a statement of intent. Sweeping across the Bay of Naples, a swirl of azure and sunlight, Sorrentino underlines that this is as much a dedication to his hometown as it is to his late parents.
While toned down, the director’s visual flair is peppered throughout. An early scene of a broken chandelier in a darkened apartment springs to mind, as does the twilight conversation between Fabietto and director Capuano (Ciro Capano).
It is also instructive to think about just where Sorrentino places his camera. This is a film about the transition from adolescence to adulthood, and so often Sorrentino’s camera tracks back and forth through hallways, caught in the space between two discrete destinations. Every shot feels purposeful, even if Fabietto’s own life lacks quite the same sense of direction.
Given its autobiographical tone, it’s difficult to deconstruct where the truth ends and the fiction begins. Moreover, though never quite self-indulgent, there is a slight sense that Sorrentino lingers for a shade too long on both sides of this story. With that said, this is his story as much as it is Fabietto’s, and at its best, the film gently but purposefully sweeps you away.