Review: The Hand of God

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

Stars: Filippo Scotti, Toni Servillo, Luisa Ranieri

The Hand of God can plainly be cited as Paolo Sorrentino’s “autobiographical one”, but when you’re an auteur on the world cinema stage with the kind of craft that marks each effort with your distinct signature, aren’t they all “autobiographical ones”?

Perhaps the answer is “some more than others”. The Hand of God is, in this sense, decidedly more than. Certainly more than a number of his recent works (encompassing TV with The Young Pope/The New Pope, his crotchety end-of-life comedown Youth and, one assumes, Loro, which I bypassed). Here he turns the clock back to the 1980s, and a nakedly self-inspired tale of an adolescent male’s turbulent journey toward filmmaking.

With a string-bean physique and a tussle of hair that gives him the look of an Italian Timothée Chalamet, Filippo Scotti plays our burgeoning protagonist Fabietto; a teenage boy growing up in Naples. His affluent family live well and leisurely along the coast, and a lavish early boating trip kindles memories of the opening of L’Avventura, particularly as Fabietto’s bold and buxom aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri) stands perilously close to a cliff-edge, poised as if to imminently disappear mysteriously from existence. Already it is as though Fabietto is living in the ghosts of extant Italian film history, ready to awaken into it’s present and future.

On that subject, The Hand of God leans into attitudes with a storied history in Italian cinema. Representative of the country’s long-held reputation for misogyny – and Sorrentino’s own established fixations – the film salivates hungrily over it’s glamorous women. Fabietto is aroused by the sight of his aunt sunbathing naked, while the men-folk disparage her as a “whore” with every breath they’re afforded. It’s a reminder of how far-removed from PC culture Italy was (and remains). See also various family members giggling like idiots at the sound of an electronic voice-box, or graffitiing penises in public lifts. The Hand of God is truthful in it’s depiction of people as exceptionally (even joyfully) infantile and fallible, one and all.

Father Saverio (Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo) gives council to his son, and among his first urges is for the young man to lose his virginity, even if she’s a “dog”. Sorrentino observes here how casually attitudes are given generational handover – a kind of family inheritance –  but it’s nothing compared to the lessons imparted by elderly Baronessa Focale (Betty Pedrazzi), from whom Fabietto learns – at the very least – the joy of cigarettes.

There is fortunately more substantive learning in store for our boy, whose initial dreams of becoming a footballer are sent askew by familial tragedy. Sorrentino’s insistence on using football as a parallel for his story’s dramatic turns may add a further dimension to those with knowledge or interest in the sport. I have neither, so must confess the affectation leaves me little more than bemused.

Sorrentino’s stylish maximialism remains intact, but here the register is slightly diffused. He still has an eye for a grand frame and elegant shadow play, but these aspects are kept to the edges of his story, which in the main goes for a comparatively minor key. His settings are frequently domestic, and while the ‘sweet life’ is in evidence all over the film, it is often played without glamour or else eclipsed by the dismissive vastness of the sea. Saverio and his wife snoozing on the sofa makes for an unusually quiet and unsentimental breather in the middle of the movie. Strikingly so, considering the turn that immediately follows, irrevocably reframing the scene.

This functional coming-of-ager brings to mind Alejandro Jodorowski’s autobiographical two-hander The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry in the sense that it sees one of cinema’s most distinctive filmmakers using his tools to reconstitute and share his own past. Many of the techniques used remain iconic to each director’s particular style, but such indulgent recycling – in both senses – make the final products feel like lesser films. Echoes of signature works already produced by their makers. Still, there’s something to be appreciated in defining your own legacy on your own terms, rather than leaving it to the uninvested cliffnoting of others. Stylistically different (Sorrentino doesn’t narrate his story, for instance), the end result is as emotionally sincere as Jodorowski’s twin efforts, and that’s edifying enough.

6 of 10

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