The Hand of God leaves viewers to sort autobiography from fabrication

Paolo Sorrentino returns to Naples for a dreamlike experiment in pseudo-memoir that is at once outlandish and tragic.

2 December 2021

By Anton Bitel

Filippo Scotti as Fabietto in The Hand of God (2021)Filippo Scotti as Fabietto in The Hand of God (2021) © Courtesy of Netflix
Sight and Sound

The Hand of God is in UK cinemas from December 3.  

Once upon a time in Naples, while waiting for a night bus, buxom Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri) accepts a ride from a mysterious man in a limo and is taken to the mythic local figure Monaciello, or ‘Little Monk’, who gives her money as a magical guarantee that she will conceive a child. Or at least this is how, near the start of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God, Patrizia explains to her husband Franco (Massimiliano Gallo) her late homecoming with cash in her handbag. Franco suggests an alternative explanation, repeatedly calling her “Whore!” As Patrizia’s sister Maria (Teresa Saponangelo) and Maria’s husband Saverio (Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo) intervene in the violent dispute, their observant 17-year-old son Fabietto (Filippo Scotti) is unsure where the truth lies.

In fact, Fabietto is always floating in an intermediate zone – between childhood and adulthood, innocence and experience, life and death – much as people around him keep plunging from the relative solidity of shore or boat into the infinite fluidity of the Mediterranean. Contrasts and contradictions abound here, not least of them the film’s paradoxical tragicomic tone. “You go to buy dessert, and when you get back, your husband is in jail,” as one character puts it, summarising the bittersweetness of the film’s worldview. One minute, Fabietto is a happy-go-lucky misfit in a loving family of tempestuous eccentrics, the next he is a grieving orphan, lost and finding himself (and cinema). This is the making of a young man and of a career in film – like Cinema Paradiso (1988) minus the indulgent mawkishness.

Amid overt references to Italian filmmakers such as Fellini, Zeffirelli and Leone, there is a strong metacinematic element in The Hand of God, culminating in Fabietto’s life-changing meeting with the real-life director Antonio Capuano (played by Ciro Capano), whose The Dust of Naples (1998) gave Sorrentino his first writing credit on a feature. For while Sorrentino is not called Fabietto, the writer/director also grew up in 1980s Naples (when Diego Maradona signed to the local football team), lost both his parents in his teens, and – obviously – went on to become a filmmaker himself. Capuano tells Fabietto, “In the end, you come back to yourself.” With this Neapolitan city symphony, family saga and ode to football, Sorrentino does just that, in a personal if somewhat fictionalised memoir where, as with Patrizia’s nocturnal story, the trick for the viewer is to sort autobiography from fabrication.