Film Review: The Hand of God – London Film Festival 2021

Reviewer:  Richard Maguire

Writer and Director: Paolo Sorrentino

Paolo Sorrentino’s two brilliant, and criminally underrated, TV series for Sky, The Young Pope and The New Pope, were mysterious and epic and in the same vein as his 2013 Oscar-winning The Great Beauty. They scuffed the edges of magical realism, but his newest feature, The Hand of God, is grounded in family and place. Semi-autobiographical, it tells the story of a young man discovering the safety of illusion.

Naples in the 80s is gripped by Maradona fever when there are rumours that he may play for the city. Some say the famed footballer would never leave Barcelona while others believe that he will sign with Turin. Fabietto’s family discuss the matter endlessly and one older relative declares earnestly that he will kill himself if Maradona doesn’t play for Naples. Fortunately for the city and the Schisa family, Maradona does come, and his arrival indirectly saves Fabietto’s life.

The film’s first half, centring on Fabietto’s family, is joyous and each aunt, uncle and grandparent is larger than life, in perhaps the way memory exaggerates; the older aunt with her geriatric boyfriend who talks with the use of a battery-operated voice box; the foul-mouthed grandmother who eats whole mozzarellas in a fur coat while the others swim off the summer heat. The dynamics of an arguing but fiercely loving family are reminiscent of mid-career Woody Allen films like Radio Days, steeped in nostalgia, and, in Sorrentino’s case, steeped in Neapolitan sunshine.

In a manner that is quite old-fashioned, Fabietto needs a muse and this comes in the form of Aunt Patrizia, whose mental illness has some worrying exhibitionist tendencies. The schoolboy, and his brother, lust after her. Fabietto sees her as a way out of his childhood, which is lonely despite his supportive family. At school, he stands alone in the middle of the playground while boys play football around him.

As Fabietto, Filippo Scotti gives a performance as fresh as the breeze that runs through his hair when he rides his moped, his parents hanging on the back, as they rush to Patrizia’s rescue. Hired because Sorrentino recognised his own shyness in the young actor, Scotti gives Fabietto a quiet awkwardness that is made more delicate by the loud and confident idiosyncrasies of those around him. Take, for example, his mother who, despite her appearance, is the prankster of the family. Teresa Saponangelo is wonderful here and embodies maternal love, or at least the memory of it, in warm embracing tones,

More gruff, but just as sympathetic is his father, a predictably sterling performance from Sorrentio stalwart Toni Servillo. In contrast, Marlon Joubert as Fabietto’s elder brother is quiet and real. Indeed, he is so real that when he goes to audition for Fellini, he is dismissed as looking too much like a waiter. Queueing for their turn to impress the great film director are a series of circus acts, drag queens and magicians in a scene that most resembles the dreamlike atmosphere of The Great Beauty.

It’s not all good, however, and in the third act, Sorrentino finally succumbs to self-indulgence, resulting in a toe-curling scene where Fabietto meets another film director who shouts advice at him. This catalyst for change seems unnecessary and while it symbolises the transformation from boy to man it also brings a chill to the summer nights in Naples.

Hand of God is screening at the London Film Festival.

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Steeped in summer sun

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