“The Hand of God” is an Italian foreign Oscar-nominee, written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino. It is an artist’s “coming-of-age” story, strongly influenced by Fellini’s autobiographical films. Actually, Sorrentino is bold about that influence, even opening the film with a panoramic overview of his beloved Naples, which recalled the copter shot of Rome that opened “La Dolce Vita”.
It takes only a few minutes for you to realize that this is a memory film of Sorrentino’s youth in Naples in the 1980s, and not something to be taken literally. One of the good gags, repeated several times, is that Fabio’s older sister, Delia, is never seen – until the last minute of the film – because she is always in the bathroom, especially when there is a crisis in the household.
To play himself at sixteen, Sorrentino casts Filippo Scotti as Fabio (also called Fabietto), who is struggling to create a personal identity in a culture that is richly defined by its people. While officially Italian, they are Neopolitan in spirit, with unspoken rules and habits that are fiercely protected. This includes a resentment of those who are not Neopolitan, including Italians from “the North”.
We see that Fabio’s world is dominated by his immediate and extended family: his older brother, Marchino, who wants to be an actor; his sister, Delia; his mother, Maria, and his father, Saverio, a mid-level businessman. Saverio has a long-term secret liaison, but Fabio only sees his parents’ deeply felt devotion to each other. Various aunts, uncles and cousins orbit around young Fabio, but the most significant by far is his gorgeous aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), who is sporadically hallucinatory and prone to strip naked for attention, especially Fabio’s. A wealthy widow, the Baroness (Betti Pedrazzi), who hires Maria as a servant, is also prominent, especially later in the film.
In the first hour, the large cast of characters are introduced, often in a lighthearted, slightly satirical manner. While we sometimes laugh at their antics, there is a delicacy to Sorrentino’s vision. These people genuinely enjoy each other, even if Maria pulls off an occasional “prank” that causes someone undeserved humiliation.
But the tone is darkened considerably in the second hour by the accidental death of Fabio’s parents from carbon monoxide. Fabio, who had been contemplative and withdrawn, erupts violently. After not being allowed to see his parents’ bodies, he goes on a screaming rampage, throwing chairs in the waiting room, until Marchino forcibly restrains him.
At that point, the story line shifts focus to how Fabio deals with this tragedy, and how it leads him to his career as a filmmaker.
There have been some famous films made by filmmakers about their youth, including “The Four Hundred Blows”, “Amarcord” and “Fanny and Alexander”. But films about how they became filmmakers are rare. Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir” films, which are challenging and disturbing, come to mind.
“The Hand of God” is neither challenging nor disturbing, but it is entertaining and well-made. Sorrentino shows an unstrained confidence in showing us what he loves, and loved, about Napoli. But the larger story is about Fabio’s search for an artistic identity, and this is not so straightforward. Fabio’s search is awkward and confused. Fabio had no friends, was shy with girls and had no real model for a future as an artist. Yet he decides to become a filmmaker after having seen only three or four films.
That decision is meant to complete Fabio’s story, which has been primarily his internal struggle. And yet, the ending left me unsatisfied. I felt that I had seen only the first part of Fabio’s story; that something more needed to be added.
The film is structured around the decision of Diego Maradona, the soccer superstar, to play for Napoli, which leads to the national championship. Fabio frequently mentions Maradona too, but his passion for soccer is subdued, undemonstrative, which is how he seems to live his life. He says more than once that he has no friends, but we ask why. He is good looking, of a warm convivial nature, but mysteriously isolated. Even the unanticipated loss of his virginity brings only a muted joy.
Only after his parents’ death does he try to reach out for connections outside the family, which he does twice. The first is with Armando, a cigarette smuggler. Older and free-living, Armando takes Fabio to night spots for sex and drinking, but this ends with Armando’s multi-year sentence for smuggling. Their parting, in prison, is a sad end to the friendship.
But the second is the film’s real climax. Fabio runs after the local filmmaker, Capuano (Ciro Capano), who has just stood up in a theater to loudly berate an actress, leaving her in tears. Fabio sees the man as a passionate artist, and knowing him as a way to break into filmmaking. Capuano is the film’s most interesting character in a way; half genius, half narcissistic jerk. But he chastises Fabio for wanting to go to Rome. Stay here, make films with me, he tells Fabio. Napoli is full of stories, if you let yourself see them.
Fabio rejects his advice, and goes to Rome, which is how the film ends. Still, he fulfills the second part, and memorializes the Napoli of his youth in this film. But, instead of us seeing an artist’s liberation, Fabio remains outside the moment. He does not seem to prefigure the artist who made this film. And Sorrentino made it inevitable for me to feel dissatisfied because the story in not about his beloved Napoli of the past, but about the artist himself. The film is Sorrentino’s story, as Fabio, beginning to end.
And that story feels incomplete. Sorrentino is still searching for a style, something to connect with us in a unique way. But, in scene after scene, I kept feeling that Fabio was self-isolated and joyless; that he had no real passion for life, or to become an artist, only for something to make him feel that his suffering had a purpose.
It may not be fair to compare Sorrentino to Fellini, but, again, he puts that squarely in front of us. And not only Fellini, but another Fellini disciple, Lina Wertmuller. The exuberance of their filmmaking, depending upon memorable music, colorful photography and settings, revealed a real passion for life. It was easy to see that the filmmaker’s real subject was a celebration of life.
I’m not suggesting Sorrentino try for their dazzling virtuosity – that may not be his style – but an artist’s coming of age is a big subject, and a subdued, even poignant nostalgia for the past needs to be more distinctive, and intimate, for us to remember it.