The Hand of God

The Hand of God (È stato la mano di Dio) (2021)

The Hand of God (È stato la mano di Dio) first published by Sight and Sound, Winter 2021-22 issue

Review: Once upon a time in Naples, while waiting for a night bus, buxom Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri) accepts a ride from a mysterious man in a limo and is taken to the local mythic figure Monaciello, or ‘Little Monk’, who gives her money as a magical guarantee that she will conceive a child. Or at least, near the start of Paolo Sorrentino‘s The Hand Of God (È stato la mano di Dio), this is how Patrizia explains to her husband Franco (Massimiliano Gallo) her late homecoming with cash in her handbag. Franco suggests an alternative explanation, repeatedly calling Patrizia “Whore!”.  As Patrizia’s sister Maria (Terese Sopangelo) and Maria’s husband Saverio (Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo) intervene in the violent dispute, their observant 17-year-old son Fabietto (Filippo Scotti) is unsure where the truth lies. 

In fact Fabietto is always floating in an intermediate zone – between childhood and adulthood, innocence and experience, life and death – much as so many of those around him keep plunging from the relative solidity of shore or boat into the infinite fluidity of the Mediterranean. Contrasts and contradictions abound here, not least of which is the film’s paradoxical tragicomic tone. “You go to buy dessert, and when you get back, your husband is in jail,” as one character puts it, perfectly summarising the bittersweetness of the film’s worldview. One minute Fabietto is a happy-go-lucky misfit in a loving family of tempestuous eccentrics, the next he is a grieving orphan, lost and finding himself (and cinema). This is the making of a young man, and of a career in film – like Cinema Paradiso (1988), minus the indulgent mawkishness.    

Amid overt references to Italian filmmakers Coppola (this opens with the helicopter sounds from 1979’s Apocalypse Now), Fellini, Zeffirelli and Leone, there is a strong metacinematic element in The Hand of God, which culminates in Fabietto’s life-changing meeting with real-life director Antonio Capuano (played by Ciro Capano), whose The Dust of Naples (1998) gave Sorrentino his first writing credit on a feature. For while Sorrentino is not called Fabietto, the writer/director also grew up in Eighties Naples (when Diego Maradona signed to the local football team), lost both his parents in his teens, and – obviously – went on to become a filmmaker himself. Capuano tells Fabietto, “in the end, you come back to yourself.” With this Neapolitan city symphony, family saga and ode to football, Sorrentino does just that, in a personal if somewhat fictionalised memoir where, as with Patrizia’s nocturnal story, the trick for the viewer is to sort autobiography from fabrication.

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Synopsis: Naples, the mid-1980s. Adolescent Fabietto observes closely the microdramas of his loving if chaotic family, lusts after his aunt Patrizia, worships footballer Diego Maradona, and leads a happy-go-lucky existence. When his parents die suddenly, he must come of age and find his own path towards becoming a filmmaker.

strap: Paolo Sorrentino’s bittersweetly nostalgic coming-of-age drama merges memoir and myth in Eighties Naples

Anton Bitel