Aged 16, Paolo Sorrentino set out for Empoli to watch his hero, Diego Maradona, play for his local team, Napoli. Upon returning home, he found both his parents dead, killed by a carbon monoxide leak.
The director has always claimed that Maradona saved his life. Indeed, when Sorrentino won Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards for The Great Beauty in 2013, he thanked the footballer from the podium.
It's hard to think of another film-maker who might have juxtaposed the exotic dancers and wild poolside soirees at palatial villas with shots of a goat, as Sorrentino did in his feverish, appropriately bunga bunga Silvio Berlusconi biopic, Loro (2018). It's tempting, therefore, to think of Sorrentino, one of cinema's most ravishing stylists, as the medium's answer to the late Argentinian footballer.
“That is a dream that will never come true,” Sorrentino says with a smile. “But Maradona inspired me to become a film-maker. Maradona was my first contact with spectacle – with entertainment – because he was indeed a sportsman, a soccer player, but also an entertainer. It was my first contact with a high form of entertainment, which was also very rich. So that was my way of getting in touch with art. And not being able to become a soccer player myself, I tried to make films. But what prompted me to become a film-maker was not only Maradona; it was the traditional storytelling in my family. Stories by my parents. But also my relatives in general – the gallery of quite bizarre characters that were my relatives.”
Sorrentino's filmography boasts some 10 films, multiple awards, and two English-language series (The Young Pope, The New Pope, starring Jude Law and John Malkovich, respectively), and now he has decided to dramatise the events leading up to the family tragedy that came to define his youth.
The Hand of God – named for the goal that Sorrentino's communist father characterised as "revenge against the British imperialists" for the Falklands War – stars newcomer Filippo Scotti as Fabietto, Sorrentino's autobiographical hero, a teenager growing up in a vast, noisy, Neapolitan family in the 1980s.
“Last year, I turned 50 and I thought it was a good moment to look back,” says the film-maker. “I think that also the pandemic contributed. It made me think about myself without the rush and without the interruptions of the daily life pre-pandemic. I also had a dream to go back to Naples to live for three or four months. Once I had a good script, that allowed me to do that.”
Out on the bustling streets of Naples, Fabietto awaits the arrival of Maradona, hangs out with small-time smugglers and stares at girls. At home, or bouncing between extended family gatherings, he's among an argumentative bunch. Fabietto's mother, Maria (Teresa Saponangelo), is a mischief-maker and practical joker. His father Saverio (played by Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo), is a banker and left-wing ideologue with a long-term mistress. His brother Machino (Marlon Joubert) is an aspiring actor who goes to an audition for a new Federico Fellini film. His gorgeous aunt, and first crush, Aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri) is lumbered with a jealous, abusive husband (Massimilliano Gallo).
Remarkably, as carnivalesque and heightened as The Hand of God appears, what’s on the screen is genuinely drawn from life.
'This was difficult. It took me 20 years to make this film. I've been thinking about it all that time'
“The film is really based on real facts of my life and the reality of my life when I was young,” says Sorrentino. “I happened to live in Naples when Maradona arrived, and I witnessed the whole scenes that greeted him. And my brother did indeed have an audition for a Fellini film. So I’m just putting in the film things that happen in my life. There are a few things that have the time or dates changed for narrative or dramatisation purposes. But the feelings are always authentic.”
The Hand of God premiered earlier this year at the Venice Film Festival, where it picked up the Grand Jury Prize and earned breakthrough actor Filippo Scotti the Marcello Mastroianni Award. Sorrentino saw more than 100 actors before he cast the 21-year-old. Many critics have compared Scotti’s soulful performance with Timothée Chalamet’s breakthrough turn in Call Me by Your Name, but the director insists he wanted an actor who didn’t look like or act like somebody else in an existing film.
“I was looking, of course, for a good actor,” says Sorrentino. “A shy boy, a boy who was able to observe – because that’s what I am, an observer – and who felt uneasy as most teenagers feel. This is what I found enjoyable to depict – to watch.”
Sorrentino has worked across a series of genres and character-driven dramas. His first produced film as a screenwriter was the comedy The Dust of Naples. His earliest directorial efforts included One Man Up, which marked the first of his six collaborations with Servillo and The Consequences of Love, starring Servillo again as a money launderer.
The director has subsequently made a career founded largely on spectacle and famous folk, both of the fictional celebrity and A-list actor variety. Il Divo, his exuberant, sometimes skateboard-viewed biopic of Giulio Andreotti, remains his personal favourite, a film that "changed the way I thought of myself as a director".
His Oscar-winning 2013 The Great Beauty offered a wild riposte to Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita. His first English-language film, This Must Be the Place in 2011, starred Sean Penn as an ageing Goth rocker who seeks out the Nazi who tormented his father. Michael Caine, Willem Dafoe, Rachel Weisz, Harvey Keitel, Jane Fonda and Paul Dano, convened at a spa in the Swiss Alps for Sorrentino's starry 2015 film, Youth.
Despite a comically sour maiden aunt, a 15-strong semi-circle of relatives on a boat and an audition scene in which all the hopefuls are dressed like Fellini characters, The Hand of God is rather more muted than we’ve come to expect from Italy’s most colourful film-maker. It’s a more simplistic style that he hopes to carry into future projects.
“I did not have to constrain myself, you know, or to hold back my horses, style-wise,” he says. “The scenes just demanded a different style and it came quite naturally. I didn’t struggle to control my tendency to have a very flourishing style.”
The death of his parents, he says, remains painful to talk about and think about. Neither the writing nor the shoot were exactly cathartic.
“To be quite honest, I don’t believe in catharsis,” he says. “I don’t think that’s ever happened to me in life. This was difficult. It took me 20 years to make this film. I’ve been thinking about it all that time. But it was also fun. It was that above all. Especially making the first part of the movie in which there are funny scenes. It was very joyful. And it was a great sense of community, of sharing my experiences with everybody.”
Sorrentino brought his brother and sister, both of whom feature in The Hand of God, to the film’s Venetian premiere. “They had seen the film before,” he says, “and were both quite moved by it”.
There was, however, a notable absentee. The writer-director had hoped to screen the film for Maradona, who died in November of last year. When The Hand of God went into production last summer, Maradona’s agent claimed that the retired player was seeking legal action over the title. The footballer’s own correspondence with Sorrentino suggests that Maradona would probably have been on the film’s side.
“I did have the opportunity to very quickly meet him but, as usual, when he was involved there were loads of people around. It was always a very messy situation. So we did not have a proper conversation. We just briefly met in person. But we did communicate by post. He also sent me a T-shirt. He has always been very kind in his words to me.”
The Hand of God is in selected cinemas on December 3rd. It will stream on Netflix from December 15th.