What exactly are distractions, and what is their value? Are movies merely distractions? What about sports, beauty, and sex? What are they distracting us from, if not just the pains of life? Paulo Sorrentino’s rambling autobiographical film The Hand of God asks these questions and others without providing any tangible answers. “You gotta figure it out yourself,” an aged director says near the end of the film, implying that each person must answer these questions in their own unique way. This film is Sorrentino’s answer.
The movie is intentionally aimless, something which is foreshadowed by the unbroken opening shot. For three long minutes, a helicopter hovers over the waters of 1980’s Naples, scanning the skies as the soundtrack isolates the percussive beats of its rotary blades. The soundtrack switches to the thumping of speedboats on the water as the camera observes the city from a God’s-eye view, zooming into a single antique car, the soundtrack now picking up the frequencies on its radio before pulling out to observe more of the horizon. Sorrentino makes it clear that he intends to wander, to make a plotless but beautiful observational film.
Coming of Age in Two Halves
After sauntering through the city with tangential characters for nearly ten minutes, the three main actors are eventually revealed, pressed tightly together on a small speeding scooter. This is the young Fabietto Schisa, the director’s doppelganger quietly played by Filippo Scotti, and his parents Saverio and Maria. It is their close relationship that anchors The Hand of God, or at least half of it. The first part of the film is nearly ramshackle but enjoyable, following the three characters through chaotic scenes with their large extended family and eccentric neighbors; after a terrible tragedy, the movie tightens its focus onto Fabietto and becomes his sole journey.
Sorrentino returned to Naples, where he spent his first 37 years, to shoot the film at many of the actual locations from his childhood, including his old family residence. Naples becomes a dominant character in the film, and it’s clear that the director has a close affinity with the city. There is an independence here, a kind of proud and separate existence from the rest of Italy, perhaps owing to the city’s complicated history (having its own kingdom, it wasn’t technically part of Italy until 1861). This creates a nice parallel to the iconoclastic family and the increasingly independent Fabietto.
Making Movies About Moviemaking
Sorrentino has often been compared to fellow Italian master Federico Fellini, with the former’s Oscar-winning The Great Beauty being compared to the latter’s La Dolce Vita. The first half of The Hand of God has already received direct comparisons to Fellini’s Oscar-winner Amarcord, as both share a similar style in their objectless wandering through the lives of a large, wild Italian family and the lustful teenage boys always on the sidelines. Fellini himself is even mentioned repeatedly in this new film; a particularly delightful scene hangs around a casting session for one of the old master’s movies, with Fabietto observing the odd larger-than-life people often cast in his films.
Beyond Fellini, cinema casts a rich shadow over the entirety of this movie, considering it’s the autobiography of a filmmaker. Sorrentino’s first script to be made into a motion picture was co-written and directed by Antonio Capuano in 1998 (appropriately titled The Dust of Naples), and The Hand of God is haunted by Capuano (played here by Ciro Capano)– a film of his is seen being staged in Naples, his name is repeatedly mentioned throughout the film, and his lengthy conversation with Fabietto brings the movie to its denoument, inspiring the young Sorrentino stand-in to pursue his filmmaking dreams. But will filmmaking be just another distraction from the pain of life?
There is a quote from Fellini in the film: “Cinema is a distraction from reality, which is lousy.” Distractions are a prominent motif here, with all of Naples excited about the transfer of Argentinian footballer Diego Maradona to play for the Napoli team. Maradona was one of the two FIFA Players of the Century, and his legendary illegal goal during the 1986 quarter finals of the World Cup coined the colloquial term ‘the hand of God.’ It was Maradona who Fabietto, and thus Sorrentino, went to see play at Tuscany one day in 1987, and it was this trip which inadvertently saved Sorrentino’s life; in this and other ways, ‘the hand of God’ has multiple meanings.
Actions and Distractions
It isn’t only sports and cinema which distract from suffering in this film. Beauty and sexuality become a comforting distraction from the real-life fighting, adultery, death, illness, and abuse in the movie. The often-naked Patrizia becomes a delightful diversion for Fabietto and other men here, and it’s explicitly stated that sexuality is a way to move on from tragedy. Sorrentino’s youth was interrupted by an extremely upsetting tragedy, and he had to figure out just how to not “come undone,” as Capuano puts it. This is why, when Fabietto shakes uncontrollably at the sound of his mother’s pained wails, his brother tells him, “Think about Patrizia. Think about Maradona.”
The sexuality and male gaze of the film aren’t exactly politically correct, and there is a stark difference between what’s culturally normative now in America and what was back in 1980’s Naples. One particular scene can be extremely uncomfortable to watch, as a teenage character is seduced by and has sex with an octogenarian woman in somewhat graphic detail. Yet even here, Sorrentino locates something meaningful and poignant in the exchange, with the older woman trying to help the younger Fabietto move on from his personal tragedy and begin his life as a sexual, independent being.
All of these distractions exist as a way for Fabietto to forget his pain, and one wonders if this was the intention behind Sorrentino’s entire filmography. A stunning, intimate scene between his stand-in (Fabietto) and mentor (Capuano) features some of the director’s most personal and direct dialogue:
Now that my family has disintegrated, I don’t like life anymore. I don’t like it anymore. I want an imaginary life, just like the one I had before. I don’t like reality anymore. Reality is lousy. That’s why I want to make films.
This is about as direct and personal as the filmmaker has ever been. He eschews the inventive, pyrotechnical flair of his gorgeous earlier masterpieces like The Great Beauty and the phenomenal HBO series The Young Pope and The New Pope, opting instead for something less ironic, less flashy, and more confessional. What’s interesting about The Hand of God is that, while it’s not Sorrentino’s best work, it acts as a kind of Rosetta Stone for interpreting his entire oeuvre. Suddenly, the orphan in The Young Pope makes more sense; now Sean Penn’s quest to avenge his father in This Must Be the Place seems authentic; The Great Beauty‘s melancholic disdain for decorative distractions from mortality becomes more poignant.
Those weirder works, however, had such visual and innovative flair that it’s almost a let-down to see this largely realistic, practically plotless film. While the aimlessness is likely intentional, The Hand of God is a little too loose for its own good. There are too many characters who simply appear and disappear seemingly without purpose, and when some reappear for what is supposed to be an emotionally significant moment, the audience has already forgotten them and the pathos falls flat.
The sound design, however, is a huge and interesting advancement for Sorrentino. Rather than rely on his typically excellent ear for pop music, the director chooses to isolate diegetic sounds and noises to great effect. Whether it’s a cigarette’s sizzle, the popping sparks of a fire, or heavy marble slabs at a funeral, the sound of the film is always texturally magnificent and utterly immersive, something clear from the opening helicopter shot. The protagonist wears headphones like a necklace through most of the film, drowning out reality with a musical distraction from time to time, and the ubiquitous device evokes sound’s ability to trigger memory just as much as geography does. Though released on Netflix, The Hand of God begs to be seen in theatres, where it is playing in select cities.
Sorrentino has personally accomplished something unique in the making of this film. His cinema has often been a great distraction from reality, with its over-the-top stylization and ironic distance, but here he utilizes his artistry at artifice to touch on something authentic and true. He makes a fiction film, an artistic distraction, about the very tragedies he’s spent decades distracting both himself from. By doing so, he hints at art’s ability to both distract and heal, to exorcise the personal demons which haunt everyone. It must have been a kind of catharsis for him, and even if it’s not a great film, it inspires others to discover that catharsis for themselves.