The Hand of God, 2021.
Written and Directed by Paolo Sorrentino.
Starring Filippo Scotti, Toni Servillo, Teresa Saponangelo, Marlon Joubert, Luisa Ranieri, Renato Carpentieri, Massimiliano Gallo, Betti Pedrazzi, Enzo De Caro, Sofya Gershevich, Lino Musella, Biagio Manna, Ciro Capano, Alessandro Bressanello, Birte Berg, Dora Romano, Monica Nappo, Cristiana Dell’Anna, and Alfonso Perugini.
In 1980s Naples, young Fabietto pursues his love for football as family tragedy strikes, shaping his uncertain but promising future as a filmmaker.
Described as writer and director Paolo Sorrentino’s most personal film to date, it’s a sentiment that’s assuredly felt throughout The Hand of God but filtered through a haze of scenarios and quirky characters that are interchangeably intriguing and engaging. It’s easy to say that the second half is more focused and more fascinating in terms of a character study (it’s an autobiographical exercise from the filmmaker, recounting his teenage coming-of-age youth, sexual awakening, and realization of wanting to make movies) as it is marked by a tragedy that springs forth something more tonally balanced in its drama.
Fabietto Schisa (a remarkably evocative turn from Filippo Scotti) is a shy, awkward teenager whose family also substitutes as his friends. As The Hand of God opens, he and his seemingly happily married parents Saverio and Maria (Toni Servillo and Teresa Saponangelo, respectively), hold onto one another, riding the family motorcycle over to Aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri). She has locked herself off from domestic violence at the hands of her abusive partner Franco, accusing her of arriving home later than expected because she was prostituting when the reality is the bus was simply hours late. The altercation is boisterous but shot intensely and realistic enough to buy into the toxic living conditions. For Fabietto, matters are further complicated as the situation has left Patrizia’s clothes partially torn down, meaning he presumably sees a breast for the first time in his life, filling the hormonal teenager with mixed emotions.
There is already enough here to build on a challenging approach to coming-of-age during tumultuous times in Naples (the most exciting thing happening in the potential arrival of a world-class famous soccer player) and involving drama. However, from there, Paolo Sorrentino debatably makes his first mistake by setting up an outdoor summer family get-together, introducing more characters that, while demonstrating how large this family is, don’t necessarily accomplish much in terms of the already established character dilemmas. I have no doubts that these idiosyncratic types perhaps existed within Paolo Sorrentino’s real-life family (the most notable of the bunch is a brutish woman sitting far away from everyone, making crude remarks). Still, it’s the first sign that he’s painting far too broad a story that’s getting away from the story he intended to tell. If you are expecting a follow-up on the toxic relationship and domestic violence, forget it.
Planting the seed for Paolo Sorrentino’s future interest in film, Fabietto also shares a bedroom with his brother named Marchino (Marlon Joubert), hopeful of becoming an actor, eventually bringing the siblings to an audition for a Federico Fellini film. Fabietto has also rented the Robert De Niro starring Once Upon a Time in America that the family plans to get around watching together at some point. Perhaps the sister will join the brothers whenever she comes out of the bathroom or her room, where she inexplicably spends most of the film’s running time.
The freewheeling nature of the first half takes a sharp turn into a more robust and more detailed focus on Fabietto, coping with loss by embarking on several misadventures with more eccentric characters. This time, they at least advance him as a person, although plenty of segments feel underdeveloped or lacking in impact. Fabietto also expresses what he believes the purpose of filmmaking is, why he wants to do it, and what he hopes to achieve, but there is still a frustratingly low amount of exploration into his relationship with cinema. Even his lustful dynamic with Aunt Patrizia, who we are told is nearly driven to suicide and forced into a mental ward by her partner, doesn’t feel as capitalized on as it could or should be, especially considering roughly the first 20 minutes of The Hand of God follow her character.
Despite that, The Hand of God is unsurprisingly exquisitely photographed by Daria D’Antonio, not only capturing the beautiful sights and sounds of Naples but beautifully lit, whether it’s exterior or interior locations. Nearly every scene is carefully shot from methodical angles, complete with some dazzling wide-angle tracking shots. Naples itself also becomes a curious plot point alongside the appeal of Rome pitted as villainous temptation. A lot is going on in The Hand of God, some of which offer reasons to stay in this autobiographical melodramatic slice-of-life. It could have used the hand of a rewrite, but visually and performatively, it is frequently arresting.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com