Review: 'The Hand of God' a Divine Work of Tender Intimacy

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday December 3, 2021

Filippo Scotti in 'The Hand of God'
Filippo Scotti in 'The Hand of God'  (Source:Netflix)

What is is about Italy in the mid-1980s that makes it such an ideal setting for coming of age movies? Perhaps Luca Guadagnino's 2017 "Call Me by Your Name" set something in motion, or maybe that instantly-iconic film, like a new word you've just learned, unlocked an ability to see and appreciate such works.

Whatever the case may be, Paolo Sorrentino — one of Italy's hottest writer-directors right now, with "Youth" and "The Great Beauty" to his credit, as well as the HBO TV series "The Young Pope" and "The New Pope" — seems well-suited to deliver on the innate promise of the genre and the setting, and in "The Hand of God" he does so in abundance.

A sun-drenched film that unfolds in Napoli in 1984 — the year soccer legend Diego Maradona moved there to play — "The Hand of God" centers around Fabietto (Filippo Scotti), a virginal teenager who's just about ready to upgrade his sexual status. But the movie doesn't begin with Fabietto; after introducing us to the city itself with a stunning flyover sequence, Sorrentino trains his camera on Fabietto's shapely, mentally ill aunt, Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), whose inability to have children has left her vulnerable to flights of hallucinatory fancy. Sorrentino ushers us into one such fabulation, as Patrizia encounters Saint Gennaro (Enzo Decaro), who takes the form of a distinguished older gentleman and offers her advice on how to become fertile.

A domestic crisis ensues, but that's not even the film's proper précis to Fabietto's large extended family, which runneth over with oddballs. For that, Sorretino directs our attention to a picnic at which the air is thick with insults (some affectionate, others less so) and featuring a jaunt on a boat and some nude sunbathing. We get the message: These are people for whom being in each others' business is a matter of course, and tensions bundle together with intimacies — sometimes uncomfortably so, as Fabietto struggles with a growing awareness of Aunt Patrizia's feminine attributes.

At the center of this loud, sometimes raucous clan, Fabietto's mother (Teresa Saponangelo) and father (Toni Servillo) make it a romantic habit to whistle to each other — a reassurance, perhaps of their devotion, or maybe an homage to the birds, if not also the bees. They are a prosperous and industrious couple, about to become more so. Sharing Fabietto's room is his older brother, Marchhino (Luisa Ranieri), an aspiring actor whose physicality drips off him. In the apartment above lives "The Baroness," who plays her own improbable role in Fabietto's maturation. (There's a sister, too, though she's always in the bathroom obsessing over her grooming.)

What starts out as a film with many moving parts, none of which seems likely to act in concert with any of the others, gains momentum and then snaps together to create a vivid mosaic that encompasses family, discovery, loss, and the beginnings of a long process of self-discovery. Fabietto, we realize, is destined to become a filmmaker, perhaps the very filmmaker who's made this movie. Is it the hand of God that moves him, and everybody else, toward their destiny? Sorrentino coaxes mystery (in the spiritual sense of the word) from the Italian sunshine, and from the bright possibilities of youth. Less an exercise in nostalgia than a reminder of the world's strange richness, "The Hand of God" cradles us in many ways... but also delivers stinging inevitabilities. It's all part of this movie we call life.

"The Hand of God" premieres on Netflix Dec. 15.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.