Among today's filmmakers, Paolo Sorrentino qualifies as an undisputed visual master. Sorrentino became best known in the U.S. when The Great Beauty splashed onto the festival circuit in 2013.
Sorrentino later directed two HBO offerings -- The Young Pope (2016) and The New Pope (2019) -- strangely alluring tales that mixed irreverence, calumny, eroticism, and something approaching genuine faith.
Now comes Sorrentino's The Hand of God, a comic (for the most part) coming-of-age story about Fabietto (Filippo Scotti), a young soccer fan who longs for the day when the great Diego Maradona will play for the Naples’ hometown team, S.S.C. Napoli.
Bucking the odds, meager Napoli snags Maradona but the story has less to do with soccer fanaticism than with Sorrentino's sharply drawn collection of characters.
Fabietto has a crush on his sexually irresistible aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri). Patrizia understands and accepts the boy's fascination with her. She clearly lives on a more sensual plane than the rest of her family.
Additional characters include Fabietto's genial father (Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo) and his mother (a terrific Teresa Saponagelo). Fabietto's brother Marino (Marlon Joubert) wants to be an actor. We suspect that he probably won't realize his dream.
The Hand of God has a robust, slightly ribald quality that can be taken as an homage to Federico Fellini's Amarcord. The story takes place at a time when Fellini was still king of Italian cinema and the great director is mentioned at various points.
There's a joyous sense of discovery about the movie's early scenes when even the weirdest characters prove endearingly comfortable in their own skins.
The movie's opening boldly displays the strangeness that Sorrentino has made into something of a trademark. Patrizia encounters a character called The Little Monk, a cleric who bestows the gift of fertility on her
Baronessa Focale (Betty Pedrazzi) presents a sustained level of cynicism and disapproval but plays a surprising role in Fabietto's development.
No fair telling what happens, but Hand of God makes an extreme tonal shift after a key event subverts earlier comic qualities. That's probably what Sorrentino intended but, at least for me, it sometimes felt as if I were watching another film.
Hand of God loses something when it turns into yet another artistic origins story, an arc that's too familiar and alas, a little indulgent: another kid aspiring to become a filmmaker.
Oh well, at least Fabietto wasn't aiming to become a writer, the career usually found in films about artistically ambitious adolescents.
Reservations aside, I wouldn't totally dismiss The Hand of God. At its best, the movie is drenched in affection, the kind one feels for the eccentrics of characters who populated one's formati7ve years.