‘The Hand of God’ Review: A Portrait of the Cineaste as a Young Man

What good are movies? According to one line of thinking cited in “The Hand of God,” they are useless except as a “distraction from reality,” something we need because “reality is lousy.”

No argument here! I should note that those opinions are attributed to none other than Federico Fellini. It’s the mid-1980s, and he has come to Naples to cast his next film. We don’t see him onscreen, but his words reach the ears of Fabio Schisa (Filippo Scotti), the skinny, watchful teenager at the center of this coming-of-age story.

It’s also the story of how a young filmmaker wrests his vocation from a reality that is by turns ridiculous, enchanted, bewildering and tragic. Lousy? Perhaps, but also for Paolo Sorrentino, the writer and director, a treasury of material to work with and through. Sorrentino — who in his previous features (“Il Divo,” “The Great Beauty”) and television series (“The Young Pope,” “The New Pope”) has swooped like a curious, keen-eyed bird through the social, political and sexual thickets of modern Italy — has now turned his attention to his own past.

There are precedents, both in Italian cinema and in the work of some of Sorrentino’s contemporaries. “The Hand of God” keeps company with recent memoirish movies like Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” and Joanna Hogg’s two-part “Souvenir.” To keep it Fellini: If “The Great Beauty,” an Oscar winner in 2014, can be called Sorrentino’s “La Dolce Vita,” then this is his “Amarcord.”

But every autobiographical film is, almost by definition, a genre unto itself: a layer cake of feeling, memory, imagination and score-settling for which no recipe exists. Fabio — who usually goes by the diminutive nickname Fabietto — never meets Fellini, but late in the movie, he encounters a lesser-known Italian director named Antonio Capuano (Ciro Capano) and begs him for advice. Stripping down for a late-night swim in the Bay of Naples, Capuano harangues his would-be protégé about the importance of courage, independence and originality in the pursuit of cinema. It’s all a bit abstract and rhetorical, or it would be if this particular piece of cinema were not so visibly and palpably full of those qualities.

And much else besides. Do movies distract from the lousiness of reality or try to redeem it, alchemizing its awfulness into beauty? “The Hand of God” leans hard into the second possibility, a tendency it shares with Sorrentino’s other work. However sordid, sad or grotesque the raw material — addiction and Mafia violence (“The Consequences of Love”), rock-star middle age (“This Must Be the Place”), Silvio Berlusconi (“Loro”) — he is a compulsive, unabashed aestheticizer.

“The Hand of God” begins with a ravishing aerial view of Naples, backlit by sunrise. The next shot is of a noisy, angry nighttime traffic jam, but this too becomes an occasion for delectation, as a beautiful woman steps out of a bus queue to speak with a gray-bearded gentleman in an antique car.

The man (Enzo Decaro) may or may not be who he says he is — San Gennaro, the city’s patron saint — but the woman is absolutely Fabietto’s Aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri). Her nephew regards her with an unsteady, adolescent mixture of lust and compassion. The movie shares his sentiments.

The extended family they occupy is a noisy, caustic, sometimes violent clan. A genealogical chart is not supplied: The audience is tossed into the domestic scrum like a new spouse or a country cousin, to make sense of things as they happen. We are invited to a sprawling luncheon full of bad manners, brutal teasing and useless advice. Aunt Patrizia stretches out naked on the deck of a boat. A foul-tempered matriarch in a fur coat bites into a ball of mozzarella as if it were the apple in the Garden of Eden.

Given this background, how could Fabietto not grow up to make movies? His nuclear family is equally chaotic, though less garishly dysfunctional than some of the collateral branches. His mother, Maria (the wonderful Teresa Saponangelo), is adept at juggling oranges and playing pranks. (One of them involves another Italian cinematic notable, Franco Zeffirelli, whose assistant Maria impersonates on the phone.) Her husband, Saverio (Toni Servillo, a fixture of the Sorrentino cinematic universe), works at the Bank of Naples, though he proudly calls himself a communist. As a matter of ideological principle, he refuses to buy a television with a remote control.

Fabietto’s brother, Marchino (Marlon Joubert), is an aspiring actor until an audition with Fellini, who finds his face “too conventional.” Sorrentino shares Fellini’s taste for odd, sometimes grotesque human faces and physiques. His most Felliniesque quality, though, may be his commitment to emotional anarchy. Feelings don’t come in neat packages or move in straight lines. Anguish and amusement are neighbors, sometimes even synonyms. Delight swerves into pain. Sarcasm gives way suddenly to earnest sentiment.

The disharmony in the Schisa household is comically banal — an all-but-unseen sister monopolizes the bathroom; an aristocratic landlady bangs on the ceiling with a broom — until Saverio’s infidelity cranks it up to melodrama. And then, almost exactly halfway through the film, something terrible happens, a hammer-blow of fate that transforms the family, Fabietto and “The Hand of God” itself.

The title, by the way, refers not to theology but to the history of soccer. When Sorrentino’s Neapolitans are not bickering, gossiping or ogling one another, they are consumed with the question of whether the great Argentine midfielder Diego Maradona will come play for the city’s team. When he does, it seems like a miracle, and glimpses of him on the field or on television are like small eruptions of magic — especially the notorious hand-assisted goal in the 1986 World Cup that Maradona attributed to divine intervention.

Fabietto is less a fairy-tale prince than an apprentice sorcerer. Scotti, graceful and alert, is a quiet presence but not a passive one. The shift in Fabietto’s perspective from no-longer-boy to almost-man is the subtlest achievement in a film that isn’t much interested in subtlety.

A lot happens to him, some of it what you would expect from a movie about growing up. He makes a new friend (a smuggler named Armando, played with down-to-earth mischief by Biagio Manna). He loses his virginity. His experiences may be, to some degree, conventional, but Sorrentino refuses to treat anything as ordinary. His compositions are lush, sensual and strange. (The images are captured by the cinematographer Daria D’Antonio.) At times, it can seem like too much. At times, it is too much!

But I wouldn’t say that this movie is a distraction from reality, any more than I would call it a work of realism. It’s a beautiful tautology: a true-to-life movie about a life made for movies.

The Hand of God
Rated R. Aunt Patrizia. In Italian, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes. Watch on Netflix.

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