The Hand of God: Paolo Sorrentino’s love letter to Naples

Movie has tragedy at its heart but more than anything else it is one of the great ‘city films’

Filippo Scotti, Toni Servillo, Teresa Saponangelo and Marlon Joubert in The Hand of God. Photograph: Gianni Fiorito

Film Title: The Hand of God

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

Starring: Filippo Scotti, Toni Servillo, Teresa Saponangelo, Marlon Joubert, Luisa Ranieri, Betty Pedrazzi, Massimiliano Gallo, Ciro Capano

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 135 min

Fri, Dec 3, 2021, 05:00


 What is that in the air? Why have so many prominent film-makers returned to the blue remembered hills of their formative years? Why are they all so intent on flogging us the exquisite agony – the word “nostalgia” derives from the Greek terms for pain and homecoming – that attends any memory of their now-altered home city? Kenneth Branagh makes the best of 1960s Belfast in the film of the same name. Alfonso Cuarón has a crack at 1970s Mexico City in Roma. Paul Thomas Anderson ponders 1970s LA in Licorice Pizza. Most of these projects were conceived before Covid-19 hit. So we can’t blame the threatened apocalypse.

Paolo Sorrentino’s soothing, funny, occasionally infuriating The Hand of God sits somewhere between the irresistible sentimentality of the Branagh drama and the more complex harmonies of Cuarón’s bildungsfilm. There is a terrible, arbitrary tragedy at the story’s heart, but, for the most part, this is a class of urban Cider with Rosie. As in that Laurie Lee novel, the teenage Filippo Scotti (Fabietto Schisa), son to a Neapolitan banker, gets gently eased into the ways of carnality by kindly women. The real love of his adolescent years is, however, one Diego Armando Maradona. We join Filippo in the mid-1980s as his home town buzzes with anticipation of the Argentinian’s arrival to SSC Napoli. Asif Kapadia’s recent documentary on Maradona stressed how his presence gave new spirit to an often beleaguered city. Sorrentino confirms – with the film’s title alone – that the affection continued even when the great man was playing for his national side in the World Cup. Little sympathy is shown for England as the genius pats the ball past Peter Shilton.

The Hand of God is wise in hinting at no apparent parallels between the footballer’s extravagant footwork and the flamboyance Sorrentino has displayed in films such as Il Divo, The Family Friend and the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty (a work that oddly seems already in critical eclipse). The director is in more restrained mood here, but still manages to begin with a bravura aerial shot that takes us from a vista of the whole bay into a medium shot of a vintage vehicle before turning round and revealing the wide Mediterranean. Almost immediately we are, alas, confronted with a vulgarity that never entirely dissipates. One of the many familial subplots concerns the sexual allure and unsteady mental health of the boy’s Aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri). We can, perhaps, forgive young Filippo his obsession with the poor woman’s breasts, but the film’s lingering on her implausibly proud nipples is harder to tidy away. Carry On films have showed greater maturity in their treatment of the upper lady.

This episodic drama swings from triumph to slog throughout. The performances of Teresa Saponangelo and Sorrentino recidivist Toni Servillo as mum and dad are, however, never less than enchanting. Mrs Scotti’s practical jokes have that quality of borderline implausibility that confirms they can be drawn only from real life. Servillo gets to show us his warmest side.

Toni Servillo and Filippo Scotti in The Hand of God. Photograph: Gianni Fiorito
Toni Servillo and Filippo Scotti in The Hand of God. Photograph: Gianni Fiorito

More than anything else, The Hand of God is to be recommended as one of the great “city films”. Roma focused on one particular locale of the Mexican capital. Belfast is largely confined to studio sets. In contrast, The Hand of God, from that superb opening shot to a lovely night-swimming sequence, attempts a panoramic sweep of a city that is often ill-served by Italian media. We get a bit of remote Stromboli. We get Capri in the off-season. The Great Beauty (still a noughties classic, despite the detractors) employed clattering, glamorous effects to summon up contemporary Rome. The Hand of God is altogether more circumspect and more contained. The family at the centre may be well-off, but the film around them feels appropriately blue of collar.

Viva Napoli!

On selected release from December 3rd. Streaming on Netflix from December 15th.