Movies can save you. They certainly saved Paolo Sorrentino, the Oscar-winning Italian filmmaker of The Great Beauty. In his latest film, The Hand of God, Sorrentino confronts his own past, a past tied to the city of Naples, Diego Armando Maradona and cinema. For a director whose movies have often revolved around vast themes such as power (with his study of Berlusconi’s superstar status in Loro as well as Andreotti’s firm grip on Italy in Il Divo), regret and old age (The Great Beauty and Youth come to mind), The Hand of God is a surprising emotional roller-coaster told by a man who is, perhaps for the first time in his career, willing to look back on his roots and the devastating loss that marked his life and ultimately motivated his art. The Hand of God is a painful film, but one that also bursts with gratitude toward a city, its people, an Argentinian footballer and the memories that bind them together.
The story of Sorrentino is the story of the film’s protagonist, Fabietto Schisa, a Neapolitan teenager, a football fanatic, a dreamer and a loner: Fabietto (nobody ever calls him by his real name, Fabio) is a boy whose life is about to be rocked by a horrible tragedy. But he doesn’t know it yet.
When we first meet him, Fabietto’s driving a motorcycle, with his parents holding on to him. It’s a wonderful contrast as Fabietto and his parents are laughing, joking around, while at the same time they’re responding to an emergency call from Fabietto’s aunt who’s once again fallen into the hands of her abusive husband. The sound of laughter is quickly intercut with the sobbing of Patrizia, the beautiful, sensual aunt whose desire to have a child is the one thing keeping her alive. Patrizia is very important in Fabietto’s life, not because she’s the first woman he falls in love with, but because she’s the first person he truly learns to understand.
The Schisa family is a loud, twisted and grotesque collection of individuals. They’re jokers (Fabietto’s mother, Maria being the main joker of the family), crooks, idealists (with uncle Alfredo, a fervent communist, at the helm) and gossipers. They’re a family of misfits that in Sorrentino’s universe constitute an accurate sample of the general population. The family gathering is a gathering of personal interests, rumors and regrets. As viewers we’re thrown into this wonderful melting pot of characters. Like Fabietto, we’re trying to catch up and not get lost in all of the noise.
For Sorrentino, these people and their imperfections are a direct link to the familiar sights and sounds of a Sunday get-together. Their language of dirty jokes, half-assed accusations and ridiculous confessions (such as uncle Alfredo pulling Fabietto aside and telling him, “If Maradona doesn’t come to Napoli, I will kill myself”) is a universal language, easily decipherable no matter where you come from.
The Hand of God is a story of two halves. The first one being a set-up for the tragedy that will eventually mark the second half, while at the same time being the most delightful hour of Sorrentino’s filmography. This doesn’t mean that Fabietto’s family life is blissful and without its occasional hiccups. The loving relationship of his parents is frequently disrupted by Fabietto’s father’s affairs coming back to haunt him and Maria. We see Fabietto suffer from panic attacks whenever his parents get into a fight.
His brother, Marchino, is his main companion – a warm, comforting presence in moments of utter darkness. His sister, Daniela, never comes out of the bathroom (well, almost never), perhaps signaling some deeper, more painful secrets kept behind closed doors.
For Fabietto, Diego Armando Maradona’s decision to join a lowly Napoli side, is what ultimately keeps him afloat. It’s not a coincidence that in his Oscar speech, Sorrentino dedicated the award, among others, to the late footballing superstar. Maradona’s magic on the pitch is a source of inspiration for Fabietto, it’s a divine presence in a city that is far from the divine and eternal Rome we saw in The Great Beauty. Through Maradona’s achievements, Fabietto lives a double life.
Once tragedy strikes, Fabietto is left on his own to make sense of the world. But the world doesn’t make sense. Life doesn’t make sense, as Fabietto concludes, drawing inspiration from something he overheard the great Italian film director Federico Fellini say, “Reality is lousy.” Suddenly, it all tastes bitter. The weight of grief takes away all the pleasures in the teenager’s life, including football. The only person that he now seems to be in tune with is his aunt Patrizia. The two share silences and looks that speak louder than anything else: both are trapped within the confines of grief. Both are unfit to live, or at least, that’s how Fabietto feels at that point.
But Sorrentino is a great humanist, and knows that whenever there is pain and heartache, death and ugliness, there are also good people that try to put you on the right track, who believe in you, who are willing to go to battle for you. Fabietto’s brother, an aspiring actor, puts all hope in him. He tells him, “You must be like Maradona. You must have perseverance. I’ll never have it. So you better have it.” He’s also the first one to understand that if Fabietto wants to save himself, he must leave. He must go and put the pain behind, dare to live and create. Whatever it is, he must give something to the world to keep hope alive.
The friendship Fabietto strikes up with a smuggler of cigarettes also proves decisive. The smuggler, named Armando, acts as a cautionary presence in Fabietto’s life. Armando’s dream of manning offshore speedboats is crushed once he gets arrested. His advice to Fabietto as the teenager visits him in jail? “Don’t ever forget that you’re free.”
However, the most important encounter occurs when Fabietto meets local filmmaker Antonio Capuano (Sorrentino’s real-life mentor). Capuano is, in a world of phony artists, a rebel, a man of the streets, a filmmaker deeply rooted in the reality of the city he so dearly loves.
It is Capuano who dismisses Fabietto’s initial attempts to convince him that he wants to make movies, too. The veteran director says, “Everybody wants to tell stories. But nobody has the balls to do it.” When Fabietto protests, arguing that he’s got a heart full of pain, Capuano responds: “Pain is not enough. We’re all alone in this world. You think you’re alone? Then I don’t give a fuck because that’s not original. You must have something to say. Do you?” In a sudden outburst of anger and tears, Fabietto says he does. He tells Capuano what’s been keeping him up at nights. To which Capuano, in a beautiful, final conclusion, says, “Don’t come undone, Fabio. Don’t ever come undone. You can’t allow that.”
Sorrentino’s greatest strength, inspired by Fellini’s fascination with the grotesque, is unraveling what lies behind the ridiculous façade. His characters, much like Fellini’s, seem over-the-top, often their looks appear to speak for them. But that’s not the case. Tragedy, pain, insecurity in Sorrentino’s filmography are masked by smiles, laughter, wealth and beauty. When we think we’ve figured out one of his characters, Sorrentino breathes life into them.
Life is not straightforward. People and their lives don’t follow a logical pattern. There are no answers. Everybody is puzzled, everybody is trying to survive, make sense of what’s at stake. The Great Beauty’s Jep Gambardella was a man of culture, wealth, fame, but he was just as helpless as Fabietto or Patrizia are. Sorrentino’s films play with the idea of assumptions, and how easily we fall into the trap of assuming something before knowing the full story.
In The Hand of God there is no full story. The story of Fabietto is the story of a boy who is still with us, whose story is still being told to this day. Whose questions may never find the answers they deserve. Whose pain may never be resolved, but ultimately, that’s life.
In a way, Sorrentino’s dedicates his past to all of us.
To those who prefer to stand to the side and observe.
To those who are afraid of saying the wrong thing at the dinner table.
To those who can’t cry at funerals.
To those who who have had a crush on their aunt.
To those who are afraid of the future.
To those who want to escape but don’t know how.
To those who never made it.