No one makes movies like Paolo Sorrentino. From The Hand of God (È stata la mano di Dio)’s first tracking shot of a mysterious car driving down the streets of Naples to the last, Sorrentino easily draws us into yet another achingly funny, and at times painfully heartbreaking world with finely developed characters and staggering cinematography, making it one of the must-watch movies of the year.
Sorrentino’s semi-autobiographical film tells the story of Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti), a 17-year old teenager living in Naples with his parents (Toni Servillo & Teresa Saponangelo) and brother (Marlon Joubert). Fabietto is an introvert, with no friends nor an emotional connection to life. The only thing keeping him going is his relationship with his extroverted family, with whom he shares a close-knitted affection, particularly his aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), falling head over heels in love with her.
But after a tragedy leaves Fabietto in a state of pure despair, his newfound connection with filmmaking allows him to see an empty world through a different lens, giving him the longing he desires to continue living. It’s not very hard to emotionally connect with Fabietto’s plight here. We’ve all, in some capacity, been introverts at some point in our lives, trying to find purpose in a world that doesn’t seem to want to give it to us. When he walks down the expansive streets of Naples, alone, exploring film sets and looking at other adults through his eyes, you can feel torment in the way he perceives life, as one that privileges the few and ostracizes the masses who can’t figure out what they want to do in their lives.
Life may be a breeze for his parents, who go through their own personal challenges but overcome them as a couple when dealing with immense adversity, but Fabietto doesn’t have an emotional connection to the pleasures life may bring. His biggest obsession as a teenager is soccer star Diego Maradonna’s potential arrival to Naples as if Christ’s savior has arrived to save the world. When his parents go on a ski vacation and ask if he wants to come, Fabietto replies “Diego needs me” and stays home to watch the game. He relates to Maradonna’s superheroics as a soccer legend, scoring a goal with his hand (thus why the film is called The Hand of God), but he can’t seem to grasp why he has such a profound connection with him. Is it because Maradonna represents a reincarnated version of God? Or because everyone admires him? It’s unclear, but Fabietto tries to draw himself to different icons, whether it’s Maradonna, Frederico Fellini, or Antonio Capuano, with the latter being a major influence on Sorrentino’s filmmaking style.
Scotti is terrific as Fabietto, hitting all the right emotional notes of a teenager longing for a purpose in life. He explores different emotions in this 129 minute journey, from pure wonder through a sense of adventure, curiosity when he’s confronted with legitimate sexual desires for what feels like the first time for him, and heartbreak when tragedy occurs. Each emotional beat is as powerful as the last one, with Sorrentino drawing the audience closer and closer to Fabietto’s journey of self-discovery as the film progresses. He first presents us with Fabietto’s colorful family dynamic, through hilarious dinner table sequences and yet another masterful performance from Toni Servillo, and then focuses on Fabietto during the film’s second and third act, abandoned by his extended family when he needs them the most.
Daria D’Antonio‘s cinematography is amongst the very best of the year, with luscious landscapes of Napoli filling the screen with images that instill awe and amplify some of the film’s most emotional sequences. When Fabietto confronts Capuano near the end on the power of filmmaking, Sorrentino takes out every tool he knows about making an incredible movie and amalgamated it through a sequence featuring staggering wide-angle shots and performances that are raw and unabashedly human. When Capuano asks him if he’s got a story to tell, Fabietto breaks down and delivers one of the most poignant line deliveries of any scene you’ll see all year.
While it does get lost, from time to time, on Fabietto’s journey and the parallels Sorrentino wants to make on Maradonna, it takes very little effort for the director to sweep the audience inside this beautiful, albeit emotionally overwhelming world through Fabietto’s eyes. The smallest oddity can make us all laugh, while a sudden shift in a character’s emotion can give us a good cry just when we needed one. It’s definitely Sorrentino’s least “out-there” film, but it’s also his most personal one to date, acting as a reminder of just how precious, but complicated, life can be if you do not make the right choices for yourself. If you’re willing to (literally) take the plunge and observe Fabietto’s complex, but life-affirming, journey of self-discovery, The Hand of God should be at your top spot on your watchlist right now. It’s the most profound coming-of-age film made this year, and further cements Paolo Sorrentino as one of the greatest living filmmakers of our time.