Directors using their films as a form of autobiography, or even therapy, is of course nothing new, but it certainly does feel like we’ve had a glut of them lately. From Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma to Joanna Hogg’s two-part Souvenir series to Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast and Spielberg’s upcoming The Fabelmans, it’s a genre in boom, and Paolo Sorrentino is the latest auteur to tackle his own youth in the form of The Hand of God, a retelling of a formative year of his teen life in Naples.
Sorrentino’s avatar here is 16-year-old Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti), a listless and lonely young man whose thoughts are generally consumed by either the rumours that Diego Maradona is about to sign for Napoli or his lust for his unstable exhibitionist aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri). For the first half of Hand of God, we mostly just hang out with Fabietto – generally accompanied by either his boisterous older brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert) or his parents, Maria (Teresa Saponangelo) and Saverio (Toni Servilla) – as he tries to make sense of his life, his city, and his insane extended family.
These low stakes make for Sorrentino’s funniest work to date, from raucous family lunches to Maria’s ridiculous pranks, played on family members, friends, and neighbours alike. The humour here is gleefully, almost tauntingly, un-PC (if you’ve been put off Sorrentino’s work by the sexism at play, this won’t change your mind), which both adds some acid to the laughs and believably builds up a relatively conservative ‘80s family unit. A mid-film tragedy, plucked directly from Sorrentino’s own life, takes the film to a darker place, but Sorrentino finds a beautifully moving grace note within the tragedy itself, and keeps at least some of the earlier laughs, though maybe with a more bittersweet taste.
The Hand of God takes plenty of time building out its world, to the point where you feel you could comfortably navigate Fabietto’s apartment complex and know which exactly which neighbour hides behind which door. As is perhaps inevitable, though always welcome, in any autobiography, The Hand of God is a love letter to Sorrentino’s hometown and the surrounding countryside and, by the end, you’ll be desperate for a holiday to southern Italy. There’s a particularly thrilling beauty every time Fabietto goes out to sea, whether it’s on the boat of one of his uncles or that of a smuggler friend he makes at a Napoli game. The sky and sea gleam, while the magnificent silence is broken only occasionally by the soft thud of boats against waves.
It’s a genuinely transporting vision of ‘80s Italy, one that Sorrentino fills with little details and great performances. It’s the auteur at perhaps his most relaxed – a red herring romance is pulled off with the sort of casual panache that plenty of directors would kill for – even as he explores his own foundational traumas. Over the course of the story, we hear from various filmmakers that ‘reality is lousy’, and the great power of cinema is to distract us from it, but Sorrentino clearly has no truck with such an arbitrary distinction. The Hand of God turns reality into escape, for the filmmaker and audience alike.