Before you watch Paolo Sorrentino’s new film—and you really should make time for it in the pell-mell of end-December releases—it might be useful to watch Asif Kapadia’s Diego Maradona. The 2019 documentary focuses on the Argentine football legend’s time in Italy, where he twice led Napoli to the Serie A title. Through TV footage, interviews and home videos, Kapadia paints a vivid picture of just how much Maradona meant to the people of Naples, how his presence in their team was treated as a divine visitation.
Many of the characters in The Hand Of God could have walked straight out of Diego Maradona. There’s the crowd watching his training session in respectful silence. There’s Fabietto (Filippo Scotti), who, given a hypothetical choice by his brother between having sex for the first time or having Maradona play for Napoli, chooses the latter. Above all, there’s Fabietto’s uncle Alfredo (Renato Carpentieri), who says he will kill himself if the rumoured transfer doesn’t go through, and gets tears in his eyes when Maradona scores the infamous 1986 goal against England that gives the film its name. “He has avenged the great Argentine people, oppressed by the ignoble imperialists in the Malvinas (Falkland Islands),” the old man says. “He’s a genius. It’s a political act.”
This isn’t the first time Maradona has turned up in a Sorrentino film. In Youth (2015), there was a memorable scene where actor Roly Serrano, playing Diego, repeatedly launched a tennis ball high into the air with his bare feet without letting it touch the ground. The Argentine was a side character in that film; here he’s a framing device for a defining summer in the life of Fabietto, a shy teen in a boisterous family: father Saverio (Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo), mother Maria (Teresa Saponangelo), older brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert) and sister Daniela, who, in a great running gag, spends the film in the bathroom. There are also assorted uncles and aunts—including the beautiful, disturbed Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), whose surreal visit to “The Little Monk” begins the film—a grandmother with a filthy tongue, and the mysterious baroness Betti Pedrazzi and downright strange Mario as neighbours.
This is the first time Sorrentino is working from autobiographical material—he grew up in Naples, was Maradona-crazy—and the change is subtle but palpable. His previous work in film and TV was consistently dazzling, but tended to keep the viewer at a remove. This time, you can feel him lean in. The film is less surreal than Sorrentino’s series The Young Pope and The New Pope, and less flashy than his films like Il Divo (2008) and The Great Beauty (2013). It has more in common with the shaggy This Must Be The Place (2011), which starred Sean Penn as an ageing rocker, or the autumnal Youth, with Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel as septuagenarians at a luxury retreat. But even these two films were arch and artful, whereas The Hand Of God has direct access to its characters’ emotions.
The first half of the film is sun-kissed, sensual and very funny, with loud family lunches and sailing trips. It’s only after a personal tragedy that it sobers up somewhat. Fabie starts taking his first tentative steps towards a career in film. Earlier, we watched him as he observed, awestruck, from a doorway, an offscreen Fellini choose actors from dozens of glamour shots strewn on the floor. Now he stalks a famous director, Capuano (Ciro Capano), whom he finally corners after the maestro thunders out of a play.
The conversation between the two seems to anticipate Sorrentino’s career. “I don’t like reality,” Fabietto says. “Reality is lousy. That’s why I want to make films.” He insists he has pain but Capuno isn’t buying it. “Forget pain and think about fun, that’s how you’ll make films,” he advises. “But you gotta have something to say.” The overriding impression of Sorrentino is someone who makes films that are fun, but pain is never absent—especially in The Hand Of God, with its exceptionally moving last moments, a boy bidding goodbye to his childhood.
In the New York Times, Sorrentino says he spent years “gathering memories” for the film before writing it quickly, taking “not longer than two weeks”. “I have to have 3,000 ideas, then skim down until I have the cream,” he told them. It’s useful to think of Sorrentino films as a collection of hundreds of ideas, for they aren’t plotted the way Hollywood films are, with well-defined character arcs. Sorrentino reserves all the tightness for his immaculate framing, letting his stories hang loose. The Hand Of God is filled with little ideas that aren’t particularly ”significant” but which stayed with me days after I watched the film. A nighttime scooter ride with a charismatic smuggler. A prissy-looking kid in glasses providing momentary distraction from grief. A man suspended from a wire, high above the town square. Mario respecting the sanctity of hopscotch. Maria scurrying to the balcony so she can whistle at Saverio and he can respond in kind: a married couple ritual for the ages. An old sheikh and his young model companion walking through a deserted piazza at night, as strange a vision as the giraffe in The Great Beauty.
At a time when personal style in cinema is being replaced by a group aesthetic, it’s reassuring to note that Sorrentino—even when charting new territory—can hardly direct a scene that’s not recognisable as his. The Hand Of God has all those beautiful push-ins and pull-outs of the camera so central to his style; his affection for music, nature, women, ribald jokes, eccentrics of all sorts hasn’t dimmed either. In a world of practical cinema, he’s one of the last remaining sensualists.
The Hand Of God is streaming on Netflix. You can also watch The Hand Of God: Through The Eyes Of Sorrentino, where he returns to his home town and talks about the making of the film.