The Hand of God

In 1980's Naples, 17 year-old Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti, resembling an adolescent Bob Dylan) was obsessed with two things – his stunningly beautiful but tragic Aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri, "Letters to Juliet") and the possibility that the great Argentinean soccer legend Diego Maradona would join his city’s football club.  His extended family would gather for boisterous al fresco luncheons, affectionate insults flying, his mother Maria (Teresa Saponangelo) entertaining them all by juggling oranges.   But the miracle of Maradona coming to play for Naples is countered with a horrific family tragedy.  Fabie is told by his Uncle Alfredo (Renato Carpentieri, "The Life Ahead") he was spared by “The Hand of God.”

Laura's Review: A-

Italy’s submission for the 2022 International Film Oscar marks the second time writer/director Paolo Sorrentino (HBO's 'The Young Pope') represents his country, his first, with 2013’s "The Great Beauty," having won.  While that film also featured a significant birthday, it was notable for its flamboyant visual style.  This time around, Sorrentino is reflecting on his own past in a more straightforward coming of age tale, the two films like the extremes of the early and late works of Fellini in reverse.

“The Hand of God,” which refers to a controversial 1986 World Cup winning goal which should have been disallowed because Maradona tipped it in with his hand, is the tale of a quiet adolescent trying to forge his path in life amidst a boisterous, hilarious family.   But it begins with a fantastical prologue focusing on another character entirely.  An antique black Rolls pulls up to a voluptuous woman wearing a sheer, white dress standing on the sidewalk, leading us to believe that the woman is a streetwalker.  But no, its passenger knows her name, her husband’s name and the fact that she cannot conceive, inviting her to get in so he can take her to a place where her problem will be solved.  In a crumbling manse, Patrizia is stunned to see Naples’ legendary Little Monk, who slips money into her pocket while the man from the Rolls grabs her bottom and declares she can now have a child (this man is also legendary, San Gennaro (Enzo Decaro), the Patron Saint of Naples).

But when she gets home, her husband Franco (Massimiliano Gallo) doesn’t believe a word of it (and after learning of her mental health decline after several miscarriages, it becomes open to interpretation) and begins to beat her.  Patrizia calls her sibling.  Cut to her rescuers, Saverio (Toni Servillo, "Il Divo," "The Great Beauty"), Maria and Fabie laughing, three on a scooter, next seen crowded in the doorway of the woman’s bedroom, Fabie’s mouth agape at the sight of her exposed breast.

The Schisas are a loving, funny family, Saverio and Maria whistling to each other with the shared code their upstairs neighbor Baronessa Focale (Betty Pedrazzi) dismisses as ‘lovey-dovey’ (typical Schisa family conversation – Saverio notes that the Baroness looks like Pope John Paul, but the Pope is sexier). Older brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert) dreams of becoming an actor (Fabie will accompany him to a Fellini audition for extras where the director will tell him he looks too conventional), sister Daniela’s (Rossella Di Lucca) occupation of their lone bathroom a running joke.  The expanded cast of characters includes Signora Gentile, the meanest woman in Naples always clad in her fur coat; her son Guppino Littieri, a corrupt veterinary inspector; Luisella, sporting a floral bikini despite her abundant, fleshy rolls and her much gossiped about new fiancé Aldo Cavallo (Alessandro Bressanello), a retired Venetian policeman and amateur cook who talks incessantly through an electrolarynx.  When they all take a boat out for an afternoon dip, Patrizia will shock them all by sunbathing nude before tossing Aldo’s batteries out when she becomes bored with his sponge cake recipe recitation.  Graziella (Birte Berg) can’t stop talking about meeting Franco Zeffirelli, whose obviously insincere compliment sparks prankster Maria into making a phone call as his ‘assistant,’ offering her a movie role, a joke which causes a rift.  This is one memorable crowd. 

Fabie’s life changes abruptly when his mom gets a phone call from his dad’s ‘colleague,’ Signora Villa, Fabie so upset by the ensuing fight that ends with his father thrown out that he convulses.  His closeness to his parents continues, however, perhaps even growing during this new, one-on-one basis.  Maria is eventually re-wooed, a new holiday home in Roccaraso proving both a distraction and occasion for prankster retribution.  And when Fabie declines to join them there because of a home game, it will also become their death chamber.

The latter part of the film finds Fabie floundering and so, it seems, is Sorrentino’s film, the loss of Saponangelo and Servillo draining it of much of its energy.  But there are also new, strange adventures pointing towards the director’s own future in both style and narrative (a bizarre sighting in a deserted plaza on Capri at night would have been at home in “Great Beauty”).  An unprecedented invitation into the apartment of the Baroness gives Fabie the push forward he needs to answer filmmaking mentor Antonio Capuano’s (Ciro Capano) challenge.  With the VHS tape of Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” still ensconced upon the family television set, Fabie takes melancholy leave of the city of his birth, a miraculous vision blessing his departure.

“The Hand of God” is Sorrentino’s most personal film and it is bursting with special moments that comprise the memories we cherish.  There is so much to discover within this film - like the family secret unrecognized by mourners trying to lift their spirits - that it is destined to be like a favored, dense novel, page-worn from revisiting.

Robin's Review: B+

The Schisa family of Naples, Italy is a sprawling mess of energy, neuroses, love, joy - and passion for their beloved local football team. Teenage Fabietto (Filippo Scotti) comes of age in this turbulent time of the 1980s and suffers great, life-changing tragedy - but also happiness - at “The Hand of God.”

Knowing that “The Hand of God” is by maestro filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino and little else, I was struck by one thing: I realized that I was seeing the director making his own autobiography, very much like Federico Fellini’s ”Amarcord (1973).”

Fabietto is the central character in this large ensemble cast and is, mainly, an observer of the tug of war that is the Schisa family’s day to day life. Beautiful and troubled Aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri) wants more than anything to have a child, but her illness of the mind and a volatile marriage to husband Franco (Massimiliano Gallo) prevent it. She is also adored and chastely lusted by the young men in the Schisa family.

The teen’s mom and dad, Maria (Teresa Saponangelo) and Saverio (Toni Servillo), after decades of marriage are still in love and happy. But, they represent the tragedy in Fabietto’s young life in an unexpected turn of events. Then, there is the iconic soccer star Diego Maradona who, beyond the greatest hopes of the local football fans, is recruited by the Napoli club. The elation is the counterpoint to the tragedy.

There is more going on in this epic family saga that is best left to the viewer to find out. Fabietto’s story is, it so happens, director Sorrentino’s story as he lays out his discovery of cinema and the influences it would have on the rest of his life through the muse of fictional filmmaker Antonio Capuano (Ciro Capano).

Fabietto, as I said, is the observer, even when a participant, of friend, family, tragedy and joy in pretty equal measures. The Schisa family is a lovely mass of many emotions and feelings as they experience life with the greatest gusto. I was a willing and interested member of the Schisa family, even for just a couple of hours.

Netflix releases "The Hand of God" in theaters on 12/03/21 and on its streaming platform on 12/15/21.