Although growing up can be difficult, it is often a time of rich and expressive filmmaking. God’s Hand is Paolo Sorrentino’s memoir about his teenage years in Naples in the 1980s, about the enveloping embrace of family love, the numbing sharpness of grief, and the way pain is sometimes the thing that kickstarts ambition. Sorrentino—whose lush film Beauty is the Greatest won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2014—has always drawn inspiration, indirect or otherwise, from his forebear Federico Fellini, and this new film feels grazed by the spirit of Amarcord, Fellini’s blissful 1973 film about his own adolescence. This is the way art works: each artist builds upon another’s work, not only paying tribute but adding new layers. God’s HandA lovely movie, sometimes oddball, but always in the best of ways. Also, it is very sensitive in how it deals with tragedy and loss.
Sorrentino’s young stand-in here is Fabietto (Filippo Scotti), a teenager with a mop of curly hair and a charmingly skewed smile. However, the first person we encounter in God’s HandAs he waits in line for a bus, his aunt, the lovely Patrizia (“Luisa Ranieri”) in a white filmy gown and luscious Patrizia is waiting. In a limousine, a man appears and claims to be San Gennaro (the patron saint of Naples). He tells her that he can help her have a baby, something she has been unable to do. It is strange and bizarre, filled more with mystery about religious folklore that sexuality. Regardless, when Patrizia returns home, her hotheaded husband (Massimiliano Gallo) believes she’s been up to no good and threatens to beat her. Fabietto, his mother Maria (Teresa Saponangelo) and Saverio (“Toni Servillo”) come to her rescue. Beauty is the Greatest). Three of them are perched on one motorbike laughing, as they hold onto one another. It’s one of those moments that triggers movie-watching synesthesia, conjuring the fresh strangeness of seaside air mingled with traces of motor exhaust.
Fabietto adores Patrizia because she turns out that she is one of those aunties who sunbathes in the nude with no care. He also has a brother, aspiring actor Marchino (Marlon Joubert), and a teenage sister we never see until the very end (the movie’s running gag is that she spends all her time in the bathroom). Sorrentino measures out his memories in scenes that are sometimes perhaps too assertively whimsical, but they’re staged with so much affection it’s easy to indulge him. Sequences show people of all ages enjoying the ocean, as well as large outdoor dinners at which the eccentrics from the area are introduced and gently ridiculed. (American viewers with strict codes of what kinds of jokes are acceptable may take umbrage at some of these scenes; but if these moments are truly drawn from Sorrentino’s memories, as they seem to be, it’s unclear who has the authority to police them.)
Best of all are the scenes of tenderness—sometimes slashed through with lightning bolts of anger—between Fabietto’s parents. Maria has a penchant for practical jokes—a scene in which she places a prank call to a neighbor, fueling the woman’s dreams of becoming a film star, is slightly cruel, but also so perfectly executed that you can’t help laughing. Even though they have had their fair share of marital problems, she and Saverio share an amazing bond, which Sorrentino often captures without words. The two have a secret code that’s not even so secret, a whistle that’s like one bird calling to another, either as greeting or farewell.
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Midway through the film, Fabietto suffers a profound tragedy, best left for viewers to experience for themselves; the moment is so gorgeously staged that it doesn’t hit home immediately. Fabietto must face the challenging task of growing up as both a man, and artist in the midst his grief. There’s an exquisitely rendered scene in which an older neighbor (Betty Pedrazzi) opens a door for Fabietto in the midst of his confusion, and a short preview of how Sorrentino got his start as a filmmaker, with the advice of fellow Napolitano Antonio Capuano (played here by Ciro Capano). And there’s also soccer: It turns out that Argentine superstar Diego Maradona, who thrilled the city when he was signed to play for its team, also played a part in saving Fabietto’s life—and presumably Sorrentino’s life as well. This heartfelt gesture is also his to be credited, at the very least, In Sorrentino’s world, God works in mysterious ways.