While lying awake one night in the bedroom they share, Fabietto faces a question from older brother, Marchino: Would he rather have sex with their gorgeous, flirtatious Aunt Patrizia or have soccer legend Diego Maradona play for their hometown team. Ah, a conundrum made for a teenager. What else would a young man in 1980s Naples dream about, if not women and football?
In Paolo Sorrentino’s memoir-style feature, Fabietto encounters a life beyond those two pursuits as he teeters on the precipice of adulthood, standing somewhere between steady ground and the waters surrounding his beloved Napoli. Sorrentino stuffs what feels like half a lifetime into a year or two, spinning Fabietto’s tale of familial hilarity and heartbreaking tragedy. In his first feature film, actor Filippo Scotti navigates this coming of age just fine. He gives Fabietto the confidence of a good son and able student, along with the hesitation of a young man facing the fates.
In his Oscar-winning The Great Beauty (La grande belleza), Sorrentino graced the screen with visions of street-level fantasy; some of that is here too – there’s a signature image of an actor hovering upside-down in a nearby plaza – but the filmmaker brings his sensibilities more down to earth. Reality is more important to Sorrentino for The Hand of God, with its flavors of ridiculousness and ridicule, its contrasts and coincidences.
The film does begin in dreamlike territory, with a mysterious man luring Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri) to meet “the little monk” of Neopolitan folklore, who can surely bestow the gift of fertility on the alluring woman. We don’t stay in fantasyland for long, as Patrizia comes home to an abusive husband who believes his unstable wife has been out turning tricks again.
Patrizia is part of the extended Schisa family, which includes Fabietto’s prankster mom (Teresa Saponangelo) and loving, philandering dad (Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty lead, Toni Servillo). Theirs is a warm household that has its marital tensions and nosy neighbors, in an upbringing full of affection for the youngest Schisa. The teen’s life is laced with celebration (Napoli buys Maradona!) as well as difficulties no kid should have to face.
Once Sorrentino commits to focusing on Fabietto, he creates wonderful tales of personal recollection, with warmth, weirdness, and nostalgic details. Swimming in the ocean with family. Watching the World Cup on an apartment balcony, rejoicing with neighbors. Spotting a film production in the town center.
The film’s depth comes from strange moments that burn into memory, like Aunt Patrizia sunbathing nude or a brief friendship with a guy running contraband. In a particularly affecting turn, it’s suggested to Fabietto that his life has changed significantly because he chose to attend a Napoli football match rather than take a trip with his parents. In that short conversation, we know Fabietto may be considering his life’s philosophy in front of our eyes.
Sorrentino has a deep caring for Fabietto and takes the time to share what makes him happy, when he throws caution to the wind, and how he mourns. It’s a dedication to character that also weighs down The Hand of God in the later parts of the film, as Sorrentino throws multiple endings on the screen, seemingly unable to separate from Fabietto, just wanting to share one more story before we say goodbye. It stretches The Hand of God longer than it should be, but it’s a forgivable offense. Fabietto’s life, mundane and notable, is one worth recalling, with Sorrentino bringing the idea of folklore full circle in the end, his young hero finally moving toward his future.