THE HAND OF GOD ( È stata la mano di Dio)

Producers: Lorenzo Mieli and Paolo Sorrentino   Director: Paolo Sorrentino   Screenplay: Paolo Sorrentino   Cast: Filippo Scotti, Toni Servillo, Teresa Saponangelo, Marlon Joubert, Luisa Ranieri, Renato Carpentieri, Massimiliano Gallo, Betti Pedrazzi, Biagio Manna, Ciro Capano, Enzo De Caro, Lino Musella, Sofya Gershevich, Lino Musella, Dora Romano, Alessandro Bressanello, Birte Berg, Roberto Oliveri and Alfonso Perugini   Distributor: Netflix

Grade: B

Paolo Sorrentino’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story is as visually impressive as anything he’s done—which is saying a lot—and one is continually impressed by Daria D’Antonio’s cinematography, Carmine Guarino’s production design and Mariano Tufano’s costumes.  The technical finesse is put in the service of a narrative, about a life altered by a tragedy that traumatizes but also liberates, that meanders but also moves.  “The Hand of God” is a Fellini-esque memory film in which the details are sometimes vague and fantastical, but make for an arresting, if occasionally frustrating, whole.

The title refers to a famous goal that soccer star Diego Maradona made with his hand in the 1986 World Cup, which in the mind of the protagonist, a teen named Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti) who serves as Sorrentino’s surrogate, also represented an act of divine intervention in his life, at least as one of his uncles (Renato Carpentieri) claimed. 

In 1984 Naples—to which an extended tracking shot introduces us at the start—Fabietto is a schoolboy living with his parents Saverio (Toni Servillo), a genial banker who claims to be a communist at heart, and Maria (Teresa Saponangelo), a housewife who’s also an inveterate prankster, as well as his older brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert), an aspiring actor, and a sister who’s little seen because she’s always in the bathroom.  In the opening scenes, though, they are only incidental players; the focus is on Maria’s sister Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), a beautiful but flighty woman who’s picked up at a bus stop by an elderly gentleman who introduces himself as San Gennaro (Enzo De Caro)—Januarius , the patron saint of the city—and takes her to a mansion where The Little Monk, a Neapolitan legend said to bestow good luck, gifts her with the ability to get pregnant—something she and her husband have longed for.

When she gets home, however, her volatile husband Franco (Massimiliano Gallo) ridicules her excuse for being late and assumes the worst.  No wonder she has to call Maria, who arrives with Saverio and Fabietto to save her from his anger.  Patrizia’s wayward behavior will eventually lead to her institutionalization, but she and Fabietto will always share a bond. 

The remainder of the film’s first half is devoted to him and his circle of extended family and friends—a large, often fractious bunch that includes aunts, uncles, cousins, and an austere, censorious baroness (Betti Pedrazzi).  One of the uncles, a corrupt minor official, hosts a lunch for the family at his coastal villa, where his nasty old mother sits apart from the others, and everyone later boards yachts for some time on the waves—which Patrizia dominates with her extreme sunbathing; it’s a sequence in which Sorrentino indulges his talent for controlled, raucous chaos.

Another thread that runs through this portion of “The Hand of God” is the city’s well-established obsession with soccer, expressed first in the pervasive hope that Maradona could be tempted to sign with the hapless Neapolitan team and then the announcement that he’s done so.  Fabietto’s devotion to watching him proves instrumental to his surviving a devastating family catastrophe that sends him into an emotional tailspin, shifting the film’s tone to one of melancholy and hopelessness.

From this point the boy’s future hinges on his meeting two new characters, a reckless smuggler named Armando (Biagio Manna), with whom he shares some dangerous adventures—along with a few peculiarly dreamlike moments—and a wildly opinionated film director, Antonio Capuano (Ciro Capano), whose bellicose advice puts him on a new path. His liberation from despair, however, requires one other element—an incident with a bat, a bed and the baroness.  If that sounds enigmatic, rest assured it’s no less hallucinatory in the telling. 

Precisely how much of Sorrentino’s script is actually based on his own life will have to await some definitive scholarly treatment by a determined researcher, but apparently a good deal of it is, although filtered through the lenses of recollection and imagination.  In any event it results in a film that’s self-indulgent and messy in spots (more the fault of the script than of Cristiano Travaglioli’s editing), but also fascinating as the work of the artist looking back on his days as a young man with mingled joy and regret.

As is usual in such stories, the central figure is more a passive recipient than the maker of his fate, but the gangly Scotti catches the mixture of yearning and contemplation in young Fabietto, and in the scene when he endures a cruel loss, real rage.  Among the others Servillo and Saponangelo make his decidedly imperfect parents—he’s an adulterer and she can be cruel—memorably quirky, and glamorous Ranieri looks as if she’d stepped out of a classic Italian film of the sixties.  But then all the supporting cast have the striking faces found in Fellini’s ensembles—except, perhaps, for Joubert, who, in a wry nod to Sorrentino’s idol, is dismissed from an audition for a Fellini film with the observation that his looks are too conventional.

Bathed in the glow of D’Antonio’s images and Lele Marchitelli’s score, “The Hand of God” may not match the best of Fellini—or even of Sorrentino—but it’s an evocative example of the “what-made-me-what-I-am” school.