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The Hand of God, or how I stopped worrying and learned to love Maradona

Sorrentino’s most personal film yet can’t escape the conventions of the coming-of-age genre.

With The Hand of God, Paolo Sorrentino, the Italian filmmaker who has caused waves and outrage with projects like The Great Beauty and The Young Pope, revisits his adolescence in mid-’90s Napoli, particularly the monumental tragedy that marked him. The film offers two main ideas: reality is lousy, and cinema is insufficient. It’s a film about ambition and the power of art to revive the dead while also showcasing how cinema is no replacement for a life lived. It’s also a movie about why Maradona is the greatest football player ever to live. Sorrentino covers all of his bases with decidedly mixed results. 

Sorrentino embraces his signature excess at his best, erasing the lines between dream, memory and fantasy. In an early sequence, Napoli is at a standstill and a beautiful woman, Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), waits for a bus that might never arrive. At the side of the road, a man stops in an old-fashioned car. He knows her name and her greatest desire: to get pregnant. She can’t resist his promise and goes with him to his house, where she meets the “small monk” and is apparently cured of her infertility. When she arrives home to her husband shortly after, he accuses her of “turning tricks,” and he beats her. 

In a rather abrupt cut, we see a young man, Fabietto (Filippo Scotti), on a small motorbike, his mother and father holding on for dear life. Violence and joy clash when the happy family arrives at Patrizia’s home. They take note of broken and discarded items. They find Patrizia sitting on the bed, half-naked and bleeding. She’s an image of fantasy and terror, an idealized feminity ravaged and broken, destroyed by an unhappy life and an unstable mental condition. 

The whiplash between the obscene surreal fantasies and the harsh realities is a strong marker of Sorrentino’s style as his opulence and dreaminess fail to disguise brutal truths. The movie feels light as air one moment and unbearable the next; the audiovisual gag of pounding flesh sounds revealed to be juggling oranges give way to the inconsolable wails of a woman scorned. Convulsing out of anxiety and pain, a son jumps for joy moments later as his beloved soccer club acquires Diego Maradona. Joy turns to pain turns to transcendence in the blink of an eye.

Filippo Scotti in The Hand of God
Filippo Scotti in The Hand of God

These, along with domestic scenes early on at the family home, are where the film thrives. Sorrentino’s attention to character detail and intimate interpersonal dynamics transcend his worst impulses. He’s sensitive to glances and gestures and how private games (in this case, whistles and pranks) forge relations. The intricacies of family and romantic dynamics are rarely overt but deeply embedded in personal histories and secret alliances. Sorrentino has an incredible eye for the paradoxical nature of love, particularly the line where pain and pleasure collide. 

Unfortunately for Sorrentino, sometimes the personal translates as generic and uninspired. His alter-ego in the film is not yet a fully formed adult; he’s just a teenage boy who cares about football and wants to get laid. After Fabietto is marked by tragedy, he becomes mopey and introspective. While we sense he might be on the precipice of significant transformation, the movie avoids those easy clichés. Yet, the film fails to examine the burden of stasis. The world might go on. Tragedy does not necessarily beget grace, but what does that say about the characters or the world we live in?

The film ends up feeling hollow and disjointed. In one later sequence, after Fabietto has decided to become a filmmaker one day — he meets another director. They chat about creativity, and the director asks him point-blank what he wants to say with his future film. Fabietto’s answer articulates the thesis of this film, but it’s unclear whether The Hand of God can say what was intended. There’s a minimal indication that Sorrentino himself wants to guide the audience to a particular conclusion. Ambiguity, of course, can be good and even thrilling, but in this case, it feels merely unresolved. 

Through the corrective lens of memory, Sorrentino revives the dead but also explores how art can never fully accomplish Jesus’s trick with Lazarus. It’s an opportunity for Sorrentino to correct a personal “wrong,” but one senses that art can’t fill the void. Art becomes everything and nothing, a pale comparison for the real thing. The Hand of God indeed has many strengths, but it ultimately feels like a hollow exercise. ■

The Hand of God opens in Montreal at Cinéma Moderne on Friday, Dec. 3, and comes to Netflix on Dec. 15.

The Hand of God, directed by Paolo Sorrentino

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