Italy has been the most successful nation when it comes to the Oscar for International Feature in all its forms. The country has 14 wins from 31 nominations. Only France has more nods (40), but they have two fewer wins (12), so the Italians have the upper hand. Their last win came eight years ago for The Great Beauty, directed by Paolo Sorrentino, but they haven’t even made the shortlist since. So, why not try to get lightning to strike twice?
Sorrentino returns as the standard-bearer for Italy with The Hand of God, a semi-autobiographical look at adolescence and discovery of a love for film after an equal share of comedy and tragedy, observed through the lenses of his family and his admiration for the late, great Diego Maradona.
Sorrentino’s avatar is Fabietto Schisa, played by Filippo Scotti. Beginning in 1984, the film focuses on his coming of age over the course of about four years. Growing up in Naples, he yearns to explore the rest of the country and find direction in his life, eager to meet the normal teenage rites of passage, especially losing his virginity. He’s also super excited for the possibility that his hometown soccer team, Napoli, might be buying Maradona away from Barcelona.
Surrounding him is a very quirky family life. His father, Saverio (frequent Sorrentino collaborator Toni Servillo), is a retired, jovial Communist who believes in treating his children with as much fairness and honesty as possible. His mother, Maria (Teresa Saponangelo) is an incorrigible prankster who delights in spreading gossip. His sister, Daniela (Rossella Di Lucca) is used as a running gag because she never comes out of the bathroom. His brother, Marchino (Marlon Joubert) is kindhearted, but rudderless. Among many more ball-busting relations, Fabietto harbors an infatuation for his exhibitionist aunt, Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri).
The story of the film is more or less a series of vignettes about Fabietto’s life as he seeks meaning in his existence. For the first half of the film, this is shown through a more comedic approach, with a heavy focus on the family’s jocular nature. They playfully mock one another, set up elaborate practical jokes, and generally make use of the great joys of life. As the family is relatively well-off, on his birthday Fabietto’s given season tickets for Napoli, a dream come true for him, as Maradona has indeed joined the side (and if you’ve seen the Diego Maradona documentary, you know he brought Napoli supporters much happiness over the years). The film’s title is even partially a reference to one of the greatest footballers of all time, as “The Hand of God” is the name given to Maradona’s handball goal at the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal against England.
All of this is contrasted in the second half, when tragedy strikes and Fabietto struggles to find any reason to move forward. The major milestones of his life are still there to meet, but they’re certainly not in the way he expects or wants, and he doesn’t know how to channel his emotions, notably unable to cry for several weeks after the Shakespearean climax of the plot, and only properly able to vocalize his frustrations until he’s goaded to do so by famed Italian director, Antonio Capuano (played here by Ciro Capano).
Sorrentino’s tale is very much in the mold of classic theatre, with the two halves representing the masks we all know so well, with a worldview to match. There are also myriad references to the greats of Italian cinema, including Capuano, Federico Fellini, and Franco Zeffirelli, with stylistic homages thrown in throughout the proceedings. It’s clear that all of these men had a profound influence on Sorrentino, which he transfers to Fabietto. I mean, little else could explain the film being bookended by encounters with a “Little Monk” character.
The film’s presentation evokes the sense of freedom, not just in life, but in art. Sorrentino fills the affair with sweeping cinematography that makes tremendous use of Neapolitan scenery, vacillating between land and sea with a joyous vitality rarely seen in modern film. There’s also a generous degree of dramatic irony at play, with every humorous scene peppered with dark overtones, and every dour moment elevated with ever so slight hints of hope and promise. Whether it’s a domestic assault intervention staged as a family outing or a prank with a bear costume foreshadowing the end of all things, there is no cloud in this film without a silver lining, and vice versa.
A lot is put on Scotti’s shoulders to carry the thematic weight of the story, and he does a commendable job, but the film really works because the entire ensemble works around him to offload just a little bit of the dramatic burden at every turn. Usually it’s from the various family members, but there are even moments where a grumpy “baroness” living upstairs (Betti Pedrazzi) offers catharsis, or a charismatic smuggler (Biagio Manna) provides much-needed perspective. This is a very rare film in that there’s one central character, but every supporting player fills a crucial need, making the lead into the sum of all their parts. It’s a level of profundity worthy of the Bard, and of the cinematic pioneers that serve as Sorrentino’s muses.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you a fan of Italian cinema? Do you have a big family that rips on each other? Let me know!