The Hand of God contains a dual meaning in its title. It refers to both the feeling of divine providence as well as a controversial goal scored by Argentine footballer Diego Maradona against England during the 1986 FIFA World Cup. Neither meaning is particularly apt, since Paolo Sorrentino’s family saga doesn’t engage in meaningful religious discussion nor is it really about soccer.
Italy’s official selection for the Academy Awards this year is set in Naples in the mid-1980s, centering on Fabietto (Filippo Scotti), the teenage son of a banker (Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo) and homemaker (Teresa Saponangelo). His brother (Marlon Joubert) is an aspiring actor who eagerly auditions for the latest Fellini film, but the legendary director finds his face uninspiring. Fabietto’s plan is to study philosophy in college, but he’s more interested in the Napoli soccer team and spends most of his time swimming and lusting after his voluptuous aunt (Luisa Ranieri).
The drifting, shapeless narrative reflects the restless wandering of its young protagonist, but Sorrentino invests each scene with a sensuous clarity and a muted sense of wonder, beginning with an early brush with a local urban legend known as the Little Monk. A great deal of attention is lavished on the eccentricities of the family — the father’s extramarital affair, the mother’s elaborate pranks, their hilarious yet intimate method of communicating with each other through whistles. Fabietto eventually loses his virginity to an elderly neighbor (Betty Pedrazzi), hangs out with a local cigarette smuggler (Biagio Manna), and runs into a famous film director (Ciro Capano) who inspires him to bare his soul for the cinema. Tragedy strikes, followed by mourning that gives birth to courage, the only weapon against an uncertain future.
What could easily slide into a familiar coming-of-age memoir — this is nothing if not a personal film for the director — is rescued by rapt attention to unseemly details. An instinctive caricaturist, Sorrentino turns his wide-angle lens toward an array of grotesques, each generously individualized. The director’s celebrated stylistic flourishes, which are either shallow or bombastic depending on whom you ask, are for the most part self-consciously restrained. The film does, however, open with a breathtaking aerial shot that crosses the Gulf of Naples and zeroes in on a mysterious black car before pulling back to reveal a splendorous coastline.
As a filmmaker, Sorrentino isn’t a mystic like Terrence Malick, nor is he a blasphemer or a crank. Instead, he operates uneasily between these two poles, unsure whether to commit to one side or the other. This artistic and spiritual ambivalence, on full display in his masterly series The Young Pope and his best-known film The Great Beauty, has the capacity to both delight and frustrate. Viewers who stick around until the end will be rewarded with a thoughtful coda that deftly summarizes the director’s equivocal worldview. The monk’s cowl comes off, so to speak, to reveal the ordinary beauty that was previously cloaked in mystery, and the train leaves the station, bound for a destination known only to God.