‘The Hand of God’ is a Unique but Uneven Tale of Two Halves (Review)

by | Dec 14, 2021

After winning the Academy Award in the now-titled category of Best International Feature Film in
2014 with The Great Beauty, writer/director Paolo Sorrentino has solidified himself as a
filmmaker on the rise with the overlooked drama Youth and the miniseries The Young Pope in
addition to its sequel, The Two Popes. He looks to gain another Oscar this awards season with
The Hand of God, a semi-autobiographical story about his adolescent living in Naples, Italy;
however, as impressive as Sorrentino has evolved his filmmaking style and despite the
emotional punches that his personal story punches, his latest film is ultimately a tale of two
halves that’s held back by a myriad of issues in the script that audiences may or may not find
easy to overlook, yet saved by the rich, gorgeous city in which it takes place and the eccentric
characters that populate it.

The Hand of God follows Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti), a teenager in Catholic school who
spends his days at the cinema, watches soccer with his banker father Saverio (Toni Servillo)
and assists his mother Maria (Teresa Saponangelo) with chores around the house while his
brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert) pursues a career in acting, and his sister spends every
waking moment in the bathroom. Together, the Schisa family lives a regal, high-class life in
Naples, where they swim in gorgeous rivers, debate over sports and pine for iconic athlete
Diego Maradona to join the Napoli football club amidst constant squabbling with relatives and
Saverio’s affair with a secretary.

The drama continues with the extended members of Fabietto’s family; his overweight aunt
Luisella (Viviana Cangiano) introduces the entire family to her new fiance Aldo Cavallo
(Alessandro Bressanello), who immediately raises eyebrows upon introducing himself with his
electrolarynx, while aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri) is dealing with a crumbling marriage, mental
issues related to her infertility and coping with an early encounter with a filmmaker that she’d
like to forget, unaware of the fondness Fabietto has a fondness for her. But his life as a whole is
soon upended after a sudden, unthinkable tragedy that leads him to ponder who he is as a
person and what he wants to become upon learning of life’s finality.

Sorrentino continues to evolve his directorial style with every film he makes, and The Hand of
God is the first one where he distances himself from wearing his Felliniesque influences on his
sleeve and has made a film with his own distinct voice. While The Great Beauty felt like a more
surreal, contemporary update to La Dolce Vita and Youth borrowed a plethora of elements from
8 ½, the dreamlike elements here are depicted with a grounded approach so they can take
shape in the settings Fabietto finds himself, such as when he wanders onto the set of a film
directed by Antonio Capuano to see a man levitating upside-down in the air with the power of
movie magic, and again when he sees the eclectic costumes and characters waiting to audition
in front of Federico Fellini.

The otherworldly feeling of Sorrentino’s world comes through the quirks of his characters,
whether it’s the way a neighbor plays hopscotch on his way to offering Maria help with carrying
in groceries, or how a glutton in-law eats dough while paying no mind to the powder around her
face. The whole film is crafted and structured like a collection of memories such as these, and
they’re all replicated in vivid, articulate detail, from the heartfelt way Fabietto’s parents whistle to

each other to show their affection, to the way massive conversations at the dinner table frame
the speakers in closeups, as if they’re in Fabietto’s face as most relatives are at get-togethers.
The dynamics of the family are very well-written and humorous, while Filippo Scotti puts in a
solid lead performance primarily through his facial expressions as Fabietto, who looks out at the
waves of the ocean surrounding Naples with curiosity and wanders his schoolyard in quiet
despair after his life has been turned upside-down.

But that’s also the point where the narrative of The Hand of God becomes aimless and
incoherent in what Sorrentino wants to accomplish. In a climactic conversation, Fabietto insists
he has something important he wants to say as a filmmaker, but Sorrentino’s film doesn’t have
an emphatic message about overcoming grief or self-discovery at all. The titular ‘hand of God’
refers to a controversial goal Maradona made during the 1986 World Cup that saw him allegedly
touch the ball with his hand, breaking a cardinal rule of the sport.

Having Fabietto ponder what is “the hand of God” to himself and manifest that thought process
visually, like Sorrentino has done in his previous work, would have added more wonder and
magic that the second half lacks compared to the first, but getting to the moment where Fabietto
comes of age is a dour slog and full of ideas that may come off as too far fetched and
pretentious for some audiences to fully buy.

But getting these memories from his subconscious to celluloid has to be cathartic for Sorrentino,
who also feels he has apparently done enough in the realm of stream of conscious-esque
narratives for the time being. His departure from that into a more romanticist and realistic
method of direction has its flaws, but it has a lot to like, as well. Open-minded audiences will
gawk at the vibrant, extravagant beauty of Naples, be endeared to the entire Schisa family, want
to explore more about Italian culture, as well as find something in these characters to which they
can relate. Sorrentino’s latest film may be messy after the halfway point, but for its images and
ensemble, The Hand of God is still a hand worth taking.

Rating: 3/5