Written by Anna Harrison
“Reality is lousy,” proclaims Marchino (Marlon Joubert). That is why, according to him, and (apparently) according to Frederico Fellini, we make movies, but is that the only reason? That’s the question driving Paolo Sorrentino’s latest, The Hand of God, and it’s one that Sorrentino stand-in and Marchino’s younger brother, Fabio (Filippo Scotti), wrestles with. But to boil down the movie to that one question would be disingenuous, minimizing all the love and anguish that shaped Sorrentino’s life and in turn let him shape The Hand of God to his will, taking that lousy reality and making it sing.
The first half of the film meanders through Naples as Fabio, called diminutively Fabietto, meanders through his extended family, from its acerbic, mozzarella-devouring matriarch (Dora Romano) to the newest fiancé (Alessandro Bressanello), subject to vicious mockery from everyone around him as he speaks through an electrolarynx. Fabio’s parents, Maria and Saverio (Teresa Saponangelo and frequent Sorentino collaborator Toni Servillo), whistle their love to each other every morning even as Saverio nurses a years-long, well-known affair on the side, Marchino is told his face is too conventional to join the ranks of Fellini extras, and there is a seldom-seen a sister who spends all her time in the bathroom. Aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri) likes to sunbathe naked. Uncle Alfredo (Renato Carpentieri) violently proclaims that if soccer star Maradona does not come to Napoli he will kill himself.
It’s a lively, if unfocused, beginning, and Sorrentino and cinematographer Daria D’Antonio frame each shot lovingly, even the ones with graffiti penises in them. Saponangelo and Servillo in particular give heartbreakingly endearing performances as Maria plays pranks on her unwitting relatives, and Saverio proclaims himself a communist despite working for the Naples Bank—he refuses to get a remote out of these communist principles, preferring instead to poke the television set with a stick to change channels. Fabio only watches (and he especially watches Patrizia), but Scotti makes him so watchable in turn that his passivity never becomes boring.
Only when tragedy strikes midway through the film does Fabio, inundated with grief, begin to take action for himself, taking those first baby steps towards adulthood. Switching gears, Sorrentino keeps the heart and oddball nature of his opening acts but reshapes where the joy can be found: no longer is his mother juggling oranges, or curled on the couch watching Once Upon a Time in America with his family, but in the gentle thwump of a boat as it crashes against the waves, or trying to recall the name of a beautiful woman as she walks down the street. The smaller things.
Not all of the scenes and plot threads work as well as they are intended to, and some can feel scattershot when compared against the whole, yet for every scene that flounders there are two to make up for it. Marchino and Fabio hug on a pier, the blue sky and bluer ocean fanning out behind them in one beautiful frame. A crowd of his high school peers scatter as Fabio begins to cry, though we never see his face, as if they fear he has the plague. Fabio has a conversation with Sorrentino’s mentor Antonio Capuano (here played by Ciro Capano) as the water dances off the walls of a cavern before Capuano strips to his underwear and dives into the night, vanishing like a mythological figure of old, and the whole thing is so bursting with love and adoration for films and for Naples and for life that it’s hard not to fall in love yourself.
Is this Sorrentino’s way of making his reality less lousy? Or was it maybe always a bit magical to begin with, and he just enhanced it with a camera? I’m inclined towards the latter.
The Hand of God Trailer
The Hand of God is streaming on Netflix.