Paolo Sorrentino bookends his new coming-of-age opus, The Hand of God, with divine representation, and spends every moment in between grousing over life’s endless parade of disappointment. Humanity is dreadful. Everything is a failure. Reality is lousy. “What a shitty world this is,” one woman opines around 45 minutes into the movie. “You go buy dessert and when you get back, your husband’s in jail.” The details are irrelevant. It’s the sentiment that lands.
The dialogue reads like Sorrentino soliloquizing via his characters, airing grievance after grievance about the grounding effect of The Hand of God’s story on its plot: Set in 1980s Naples, attending to the rich, boring routine comprising the comings and going of the tight-knit family Schisa—father Saverio (Toni Servillo) and mother Maria (Teresa Saponangelo), and their sons, eldest Marchino (Marlon Joubert) and youngest Fabietto (Filippo Scotti)—Sorrentino constructs the film with fewer surrealist flourishes than in his latter-day works, a la 2018’s Loro, 2015’s Youth and 2013’s The Great Beauty, where a man makes a giraffe disappear into thin air in the middle of a Roman colosseum. Placed next to these pictures, The Hand of God is downright normal.
Normalcy may not satisfy Sorrentino’s characters, whether principle or supporting, but The Hand of God finds abundance in quotidian Italian conventions: Abundance of meaning, abundance of beauty, abundance of comedy, and so as to avoid burying the lede, The Hand of God is consistently hilarious for the first hour or so (an opening scene of domestic violence notwithstanding). No sooner have 20 minutes elapsed that the Schisas have gathered beneath an arbor for a vast lunch where the main course is a ceaseless stream of insults, goading and unadorned mean-spirited remarks. Maria hovers by the family matriarch, Signora Gentile (Dora Romano), a harridan with a hair-trigger temper, gamely trying to push the Signora to curse. Curse she does. Either the Signora has zero patience or Maria’s just that good.
Comedy punctuates The Hand of God’s placid narrative, witnessed almost solely through the eyes of Fabietto. Sorrentino’s teenage protagonist sees all and feels more, as if the director means to say that the gift of observation is actually more of a bane. Life in house Schisa for the most part is pleasant, loving, warm; the idyll cracks when Saverio’s long-time mistress calls Maria late in the evening to taunt her. (Ah, extramarital affairs, Italian-style.) Maria kicks Saverio out. She starts juggling oranges, a beloved parlor trick at family functions, to calm her anguish. Fabietto has a seizure. It’s a lot. But in darkness Sorrentino looks for light. Brotherly love prevails: Marchino rushes to Fabietto’s rescue, reminding him of the good things in life, like Diego Maradona, the Argentine soccer star who led the Napoli soccer club to its first championship in the 1986-1987 season; and of Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), their hot aunt, who walks around naked in roughly one-third of her screen time.
Patrizia will likely pose an obstacle for a chunk of The Hand of God’s audience: She’s the victim of that aforementioned act of violence at the start of the movie, and she receives the first divine visitation from the duo of San Gennaro (Enzo De Caro) and the Little Monk, a pint-sized figure from Italian fairy tales. In a chance encounter, Gennaro and the Monk restore Patrizia’s capacity to get pregnant with nothing more than a quick squeeze of her nethers. “Misogyny,” some will howl. That and the forbidden glances she shares with Fabietto look, on the surface, “problematic,” but the film understands what the problems with their relationship are and empathizes with them. Sorrentino applies a gentle glow to their interactions, a subtle elevation of tone that briefly separates Fabietto and Patrizia from the rest of the picture. There’s no innocence here, just compassion for a woman beaten and driven mad by a cultural acceptance of abuse as a fact of romance.
Sorrentino doesn’t make the point aloud, but framing Fabietto and Patrizia’s troubled bond as he does reads like religious criticism: Where the hell is your God? God, like surrealism, is pretty much absent here. The gaping hole He leaves in the film is not filled by the appearance of a Saint and a sprite, either. God doesn’t care. No wonder life is a series of bummers that ends the moment you croak. No wonder Fabietto is drawn to cinema by Antonio Capuano, the real-life Neapolitan filmmaker who gave Sorrentino his start in the business. He’s played as a loudmouth crosspatch by Ciro Capano, turning the dial on “asshole” all the way to 10, but what Fabietto sees in his films inspires him to try his hand at the art himself. It’s a common enough story among Italians of a certain age. But Sorrentino Trojan horses it into The Hand of God. The film is never “about” Fabietto becoming un regista. It’s about the crap that falls on his shoulders and makes the job attractive to his young eyes. Of course Fabietto gravitates toward cinema. It’s an escape.
The Hand of God isn’t escapism, contradicting Fabietto’s late-stage career goals. It is an entertaining hoot and a poignant drama that mellows into an exercise in bereavement in its second half, where Fabietto takes his mind off of a world-shattering tragedy by fanboying out over Capuano and getting into trouble with Armando (Biagio Manna), Sorrentino’s secret weapon: A gregarious cigarette smuggler whose wild streak belies abiding loyalty to whomever he calls “friend.” At all times—happy or melancholic, comical or grief-stricken, horny (in a socially acceptable way) or horny (in an icky way), heady or simple—it’s a demonstration of the great director’s impeccable craftsmanship. There’s no shot he won’t finesse into its most ideal state. Even the change in scenery, the shift from Silvio Berlusconi’s ill-gotten opulence in Loro or high-society luxuries in The Great Beauty, is made pristine through Sorrentino and cinematographer Daria D’Antonio’s eyes.
The Schisas don’t live an affluent life. They don’t live a poor life, either. They just live the best anybody can in an amoral universe where no one’s looking out for you and fortunes can change on a dime. First Maradona isn’t playing for Napoli, and then he is; a surprise bear looms over Saverio, prepped and ready for a maulin’, before revealing he’s a costumed performer in a prank orchestrated by Maria; Patrizia is incapable of carrying a child, and then with a bad touch from San Gennaro, she is. It’s impossible to keep up. The Hand of God doesn’t try to. Instead, guided by Fabietto, the movie takes its time. It watches. It breathes. It captures life with a clarity even Sorrentino’s best efforts haven’t quite—which makes it his best effort to date.
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Writer: Paolo Sorrentino
Starring: Filippo Scotti, Toni Servillo, Teresa Saponangelo, Marlon Joubert, Luisa Ranieri, Renato Carpentieri, Massimiliano Gallo, Betti Pedrazzi, Biagio Manna, Ciro Capano
Release Date: December 2, 2021 (theaters); December 15, 2021 (Netflix)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.