It would be accurate to say that Paolo Sorrentino’s work explores the relationship between the sacred and the profane, but such tepid wording fails to capture the orgiastic maximalism of “The Great Beauty,” speak to the sexed up sacrilege of “The New Pope,” or summon the I didn’t even see it because a Sorrentino movie about Silvio Berlusconi just sounded way too exhausting-ness of “Loro.” Calling “Il Divo” a film about a crooked politician would be like calling “8 ½” a film about writer’s block: Right enough, and yet oh so wrong. In Sorrentino’s world, the sacred and the profane don’t just rub together or intertwine so much as they dry hump each other — with eternal vigor — until we so lose track of where one ends and the other begins that we stop trying to figure it out. For better or worse, his cinema is the work of someone who knows that life isn’t neatly divided into the holy and the heretical, miracles and tragedies.
Now, Sorrentino revisits the summer when he learned that lesson the hard way, as the famed stylist churns his memories into a soberingly autobiographical coming-of-age story about a Neopolitan teenager whose entire world is lost and redeemed in almost the same breath. Appropriately erratic and transcendent in equal measure, “The Hand of God” might be shot with uncharacteristic restraint by Sorrentino’s baroque standards, but its relative calm allows him to crystallize a truth that was sometimes lost amid the chaos of his more circus-like epics: Heaven and hell are very real places that co-exist right here on Earth, often on top of and inside each other so completely that people can lose sight of where they are if they forget to close their eyes and imagine they’re somewhere else.
Naples in the 1980s: It was the best of times for Sorrentino, and it was the worst of times. And so it shall be for his young stand-in Fabietto Schisa (newcomer Filippo Scotti), who naturally lacks the ability to see either of them heading toward him. Like too many of the main characters in coming-of-age stories — even the autobiographical ones — the gawky and introverted Fabietto is something of a blank slate; unformed in a way that comes off as underwritten. That’s all the more striking in a film this boisterous and full of life, but also easier to forgive.
“The Hand of God” certainly doesn’t lack for characters that hold your attention. The first and most tragic of them is Fabietto’s infertile aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), a buxom Sophia Loren type who’s introduced in a haunted prologue that anticipates the funereal horniness of the film to come. Desperate to bear her abusive husband a child, Patrizia seeks out the ghost of San Gennaro in the hope that a smack on the ass from a dead saint might be enough to heal her womb (the material presence of such myths will later give way to the waking dreams of cinema itself, beginning with the “Once Upon a Time in America” VHS that takes permanent residence atop the Schisa family TV).
Stranger things have happened, and several of them will over the course of that summer: Fabietto’s matinee idol brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert) will land a screen test for a new Fellini movie, and his sister Daniela will almost literally never come out of the bathroom. A cigarette smuggler will become his first real friend, and a neighbor will become the last person he would’ve picked to take his virginity. None of these people will know what to make of it when Mario — a mustached imbecile prone to wearing a red shirt under his blue overalls — starts drawing penises on every surface of the neighborhood. Like so many of the carnivalesque flourishes that form the soul of this movie, it’s the kind of detail that feels at once both unreal and vividly remembered.
But nothing, it seems, could possibly come as more of a shock to Fabietto than the news that Barcelona mega-star Diego Maradona — who the very subjective opening credits refer to as “the best soccer player of all time” — is taking his talents to Naples. Only in a story where fantasy infringes upon reality like a film shoot on a public street and saints walk among us just waiting to cop a feel could a mythic figure like Maradona just show up out of the blue one day.
It’s so outlandish that it could be one of the pranks Fabietto’s mom (Teresa Saponangelo) plays on the woman across the hall during the funny, anarchic family scenes that find the first half of “The Hand of God” as indebted to “Amarcord” as the second is to “I Vitteloni.” Even Fabietto’s happy-go-lucky communist father (Sorrentino mainstay Toni Servillo, the sweetness) can’t believe this good fortune. But the Schisas’ blessings turn out to be decidedly mixed. In a turn of events true to Sorrentino’s life, Fabietto opts to watch Maradona work his magic at the local stadium rather than spend a weekend with his parents at their vacation home, where they both die from a carbon monoxide leak. Euphoria and tragedy running on parallel tracks.
Fellini says, “Cinema is a distraction from reality, which is lousy.” But Sorrentino doesn’t seem so sure, even as his young avatar gravitates towards the movies in the wake of the lousiest thing that has ever happened to him. Perhaps — Fabietto begins to wonder after witnessing first-hand how these two dimensions overlap — cinema can represent a broadening of reality. Not just an escape from the pain that will haunt him for the rest of his life, but also a way to savor the pleasure that’s been displaced to the margins. If heaven and hell can occupy the same space, why not materiality and imagination?
Even (and sometimes especially) at its most inconsolable, “The Hand of God” holds fast to the idea that Fabietto may not be able to change the world, but the right lens may be able to change how he looks at it. Consider the scene where Fabietto has sex with a (much) older woman who encourages him to pretend that he’s sleeping with someone else. “You have to imagine the show,” she tells him, “because you can’t change the channel now.”
Sorrentino’s grip strengthens as the film grows more surreal, a trend that peaks with a subplot in which Fabietto befriends Sorrentino’s mentor, the fiery director Antonio Capuano. Listening to this know-nothing twerp bemoan Naples as a place where nothing happens, Capuano snaps back: “Do you know how many stories there are in this city!?”
He doesn’t then, but eventually he will come to realize that his aunt sunbathing nude on the deck of the family boat was a story, and “the meanest woman in Naples” eating chunks of mozzarella with her bare hand was a story, and his parents whistling their love to each other even while their marriage rotted from the core was a story too.
“The Hand of God” doesn’t always find the clearest way of knotting these various stories together, and the film’s second half — replete with so many highs — also feels like it leaves a number of important characters dangling in the wind. Even the gentle final shot, which crystallizes so much of the movie’s wistful promise, doesn’t allow the film to resolve so much as it guarantees that it will do so one day in the distant future. “I want an imaginary life,” Fabietto declares some time after his parents’ death, “just like the one I had before.” By the time this tremblingly personal movie comes to an end, Sorrentino has shown us how he made that life into his reality.
“The Hand of God” premiered at the 2021 Venice Film Festival. It will be available to stream on Netflix starting Wednesday, December 15.