Paolo Sorrentino’s new autobiographical film The Hand of God (È stata la mano di Dio) is on Netflix since December 15. According to Netflix’s Global Top 10 chart, it was the second most watched non-English movie during the first week of its release on the platform. It is an unflinching memoir about a young man’s path into becoming an artist.
Set in 1980s Naples, Italy, The Hand of God follows Fabietto Schisa (played by Filippo Scotti), a teenager with an eccentric family. It is a family full of daily dramas, laughter and love. The arrival of soccer legend Diego Maradona to join the Napoli football club inadvertently saves Fabietto’s life. With tragedy striking, Fabietto still has his whole future ahead of him. It is a story about family memories, the Neapolitans’ love for Maradona, and painful loss.
There is a Felliniesque inspired stylisation to the way the Schisa family is presented. They appear almost like grotesque characters, their character traits accentuated, their flaws magnified to highlight each of their eccentric personalities. The mother likes to play pranks, cruel ones even. Signora Gentile sits apart from everyone else in the family, spatting insults at everyone, until she is later grotesquely beaten up by everyone. The forty-year-old spinster aunt could only find a 70-year-old to be with her. The maternal aunt, Patrizia, on the other hand, is over-sexualized, sunbathing naked. The sister is never seen, always in the bathroom—a running gag throughout the film.
Many autobiographical films are dipped in nostalgia. There is no nostalgia in Sorrentino’s film. There is no longing for the past. Sorrentino portrays this family with all its flaws clearly on show. But the unconditional love that lives between his parents, with their not-so-secret whistling code, is vibrantly remembered. It is not longing for the past, but a past revisited, relived. As Fabietto drives his scooter, his mother and father both sat behind him, all three clinging on to each other, laughing together, you can feel the sea breeze brushing pass them as much as the love that unites them. It is a moment in time lived, and here relived.
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When a great loss strikes Fabietto, a numbness of feeling installs itself. The film keeps its distance from any emotionality. As Fabietto stands in the school yard finally crying, his back is to the camera. Only the sound of his crying lets the viewers know what is happening. The film reflects this sense of numbness after the shock, the immeasurable pain of losing someone you love. It is a great portrayal of what happens after tragedy strikes. How does one conceptualize one’s future, when all one wants to do is for their lives to continue the way it had. Here, Fabietto turns to art, to the cinema.
The Hand of God is a great ode to Sorrentino’s home city, Naples. The film opens with magnificent images of the blue sea. The film shows the city united as they all watch Maradona score goals on their TV which everyone is watching on their balcony. The city’s folklore about the Little Monk is here revisited. As the filmmaker Antonio Capuano tells Fabietto at the end, it is the stories of Naples that he must tell. In the end, this is what the film appears to be about. How an artist came to be.
At this year’s 78th Venice Film Festival, with its jury headed by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, The Hand of God won the Grand Jury Prize, and Filippo Scotti received the Marcello Mastroianni Award for his performance. The film was selected as the Italian entry for the Best International Feature Film category, and is part of the 15 films shortlisted.