The Hand of God: Paolo’s War, by David Bax
The Hand of God is a Paolo Sorrentino film–and not one of the American ones–so it goes without saying that Toni Servillo is in the cast. But, following the example set by Sorrentino’s previous effort, 2018’s underwhelming misstep Loro, Servillo is not the lead, once again playing instead an imposing and influential figure in the protagonist’s life.
Still, The Hand of God is indisputably Sorrentino’s work. When you encounter a symmetrical wide shot of a woman juggling oranges in the middle of a grove of trees or a moment when all the audio fades out except for the sound a speedboat makes bouncing off the tops of the waves, you will recognize his luxe near-surrealism. Yet these moments are less thick on the ground this time, allowing more room for authentic, uncommented-upon emotions.
Sorrentino’s grandeur and aesthetic excess have long earned him comparisons to Federico Fellini. Here, he seems to be inviting them. As an autobiographical coming-of-age tale, the sobriquet “Sorrentino’s Amarcord” practically composes itself. So it feels almost cheeky when he blatantly acknowledges instead the influence of his fellow Neapolitan Antonio Capuano (whose films I will admit to never having seen), even making him a delightfully volatile character in The Hand of God‘s second half.
One thing the film does have in common with Amarcord, though, is a vision of childhood that is only partially idealized and definitely not sanitized. It’s a wondrous time but not an innocent one. Fleshly concerns, appropriate or otherwise, dominate the mind of young Fabietto (Filippo Scotti). Sorrentino raises and doesn’t fully dismiss the suggestion that the desire to become a film director stems, at least in part, from the fact that it’s a way to get beautiful women to take their clothes off for you.
Fabietto is sensitive in the way that a child can be but also insensitive in the way that a child can be, especially when it comes to people outside his immediate circle. This is natural, as empathy only comes with age and experience, but we also come to see that it’s a learned trait, the result of his upbringing. The Hand of God‘s first act is dominated by an extended family vacation in which Fabietto’s parents, aunts and uncles ceaselessly take digs at each other but reserve their greatest cruelties for outsiders, the like the new boyfriend–unfortunate enough to be meeting the clan for the first time–who gets the batteries of his electrolarynx tossed into the sea and has to spend the rest of the day in silence.
But the tightknit group unquestionably love each other. And so the cruelest turn of events in the movie comes at almost exactly the halfway point, in which a twist of fate taken directly from Sorrentino’s life leaves a gaping hole in the family. For the remainder of the film, we watch Fabietto merely try to survive the fallout. Sorrentino has spent much of his career pointing his camera at modern Italian society. With the The Hand of God, he turns it around on himself. The change is revelatory.