In soccer lore, the “hand of God” refers to Diego Maradona’s legendary first goal against England in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinals, a shot he practically punched into the net. The illegal hand ball went unseen by the refs in a game Argentina took 2-1, on its way to winning the world championship one week later. The English were understandably salty about it for years, even though Maradona was the undisputed greatest player in the world at the time and Argentina clearly the better team. To some Argentines, the victory over England, coming not so long after their country’s defeat in the Falklands War of 1982, had some deeper resonance. Maybe it was revenge, or maybe it was just a necessary balancing of the books.
The title of Paolo Sorrentino’s achingly autobiographical coming-of-age film The Hand of God refers not just to Maradona’s goal but also to a shattering tragedy that the director endured as a teen, and which occurs almost exactly halfway through this perplexing, lovely movie. The event in question actually has its own rather surprising Maradona connection. (I won’t give either the tragedy or its soccer connection away, even though plenty of articles about the picture have mentioned the rather ghastly thing that the film is about.) In other words, in Sorrentino’s vision, too, the “hand of God” is not a random act of divine Providence or damnation, but an offsetting, a counterbalance. Through unspeakable sorrow, the director seems to suggest, he wound up becoming a man and an artist.
Sorrentino’s stand-in is Neapolitan teen Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti), who is growing up in the 1980s with little but girls and soccer on his mind. He’s excited by the rumors that Maradona might be on the verge of signing with the local team, SSC Napoli. And he’s also enchanted by his voluptuous aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), who is grappling with both mental illness and an abusive shithead husband. To be fair, everybody in the family seems to lust for Patrizia. When the whole clan gets together for a summer gathering and she takes her clothes off to tan, all the menfolk sit transfixed.
The early scenes of The Hand of God are disjointed in the way family chronicles tend to be. We meet Fabietto’s oddball parents: Dad (played by Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo, possibly the greatest actor of his generation) is a devout communist who also happens to work at a bank; he’s deeply in love with Fabietto’s mother (Teresa Saponangelo) but has evidently also been cheating on her for years. Mom, on the other hand, is alternately sensible and ruthless; she’ll help a family member in need at the drop of a hat, but she’ll also play the cruelest of pranks on those around her. We meet Fabietto’s older brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert), an aspiring actor who auditions for bit parts in Fellini films but can never get a gig because he’s uninterestingly handsome and has no real drive. (“It’s called persistence,” he tells Fabietto one day, as they watch Maradona patiently knock shot after shot at practice. “And I’ll never have it.”) Their sister, in a surreal running gag throughout the movie, never leaves the bathroom.
There is in fact a general sense of stasis throughout the house — through the whole extended family — as if we’re watching a moment captured in time and then stretched across the years. The family has rented a VHS of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America from the video store, but they never manage to watch it. Maradona came to Napoli in 1984; he scored the “hand of God” goal in 1986; Napoli won its first championship with him in 1987 — all moments glimpsed in the film, even though Fabietto the teen (or anyone else, for that matter) never really seems to age. Isn’t that how memory works, anyway?
In the style of his great hero, Fellini, Sorrentino plays up the surrealism and the grotesquerie, whether he’s depicting the neighbors in Fabietto’s apartment building or his own family. He’s unafraid to show his loved ones being petty, or cruel, or crazy, or judgmental, and the overall effect — fond remembrance of people being deeply shitty to each other — feels startling and true. The director doesn’t try to sugarcoat or sanitize these years. This is who they were, he seems to be saying, and I loved them. Throughout the episodic, diffuse first half, Sorrentino also plants little narrative elements that he pays off in the second half, be it a nasty rumor, a magical vision, or the missing battery from an elderly relative’s electrolarynx.
With previous films like the Oscar-winning Great Beauty and the politically charged biopics Il Divo and Loro, Sorrentino indulged his fondness for boisterous, bunga-bunga stylization. He is contemporary cinema’s mad poet of unchecked hedonism. But he holds himself back this time around. The Hand of God isn’t realistic or gritty (or, God forbid, subtle), but it is more subdued. Not because the director is telling a more personal story, but because he’s trying to get us to notice something almost inexpressible — the weird, gathering sense that the world, for all its horrors, is a marvel worth exploring and revealing. There’s a moment in the second half when Fabietto takes a ride on the back of a friend’s scooter one night, and they drive down to a pier. Our hero looks up at the darkened sky, the city twinkling around them, the shimmering sea, and remarks that he’s never realized Naples could be so beautiful. It’s this feeling of melancholy liberation, of not just beauty but the crucial role that beauty plays in saving our broken lives, that Sorrentino captures in his captivating film.
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