Warning: Spoilers Ahead
The unlikely arrival of Diego Maradona into Naples on 5 July 1984, following a record transfer fee from Barcelona of £6.9 million, would change the fortunes of the city and those of its inhabitants who believed the footballing talisman to be no less than a God.
In just three short years he would lead Napoli to their first ever Serie A Italian Championship, banishing forever their belittled reputation as no-hopers and cementing Maradona’s place in the hearts of Neapolitans forever.
The Naples born film director Paolo Sorrentino however owes the footballer a different debt of gratitude, and it’s the looming shadow of a coincidental event during Maradona’s unlikely tenure in Napoli that lends his new film, The Hand of God, both its title and deeper meaning.
A semi-autobiographical reimagining of the young film-makers difficult coming of age leading up to, and following, a family tragedy – this is Sorrentino’s most personal film yet.
Less showy and flamboyant than his Oscar winning The Great Beauty; with its grand cinematic sweep across the city of Rome as if in a constant state of woozy intoxication, this is a more stylistically grounded film for obvious reasons – the director choosing to fix his camera on recollected moments of familial joy, dysfunction and tribulation, as his substitute protagonist Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti) navigates through an often confusing adolescence.
As with Federico Fellini, who he is often compared, Sorrentino populates his films with colourful characters and outlandish misadventures – lending them an air of magic realism that can intoxicate and infuriate in equal measure. Aside from a scene which shows a carnivalesque assortment of hopefuls auditioning for a Fellini film early on, the motley crew of supporting players this time are modelled on Sorrentino’s own extended family, including a foul-mouthed grandmother, petty-criminal uncle and a sexy yet unstable aunt who feeds Fabietto’s virginal imagination. His father is a jolly but philandering banker (played by regular Sorrentino collaborator Tony Servillo), his mother (Teresa Saponangelo) a loving firebrand with a penchant for practical jokes, and a pair of older siblings; brother Marchino with whom he has a tender bond and sister Daniela who, in a running gag, is always locked in the bathroom.
Early scenes establish the chaotic interplay between various family members but also weave some Neaolitan folklore into the narrative. Fabietto’s aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri) – upon returning to her husband with a purse full of cash – tells of meeting Saint Gennaro (patron saint of the city) and the Munaciello (a mysterious little monk who is believed to grant wishes) while waiting for the bus at the Piazza del Plebiscito. The story is flatly dismissed by her husband who believes her to be a whore and leads to a vicious argument, but the inclusion of the scene helps to locate the film in a particular place, with its own set of fables and beliefs. Other beautiful and evocative Naples locations are used throughout to help flesh out the richness of Fabietto’s lived experience in a city that Sorrentino described as “a magical, dangerous place in which everything can happen around every corner”.
If The Great Beauty was Sorrentino’s love-letter to Rome, then The Hand of God is its more sombre twin – a paean to the director’s birthplace and the people that helped to forge his identity.
Although Fabietto is an awkward teen with no friends and a quiet, pensive nature, he nevertheless stumbles across people that will inspire his worldview and be pivotal in his decision to both become a film-maker and to leave Naples for good. People like the smuggler and wide-boy Armando (Biagio Manna), who’s impulsive and carefree behaviour provides a necessary relief, or the film director Antonio Capuano (Ciro Capano) who will confront Fabietto with some harsh realities about his chosen profession when the two meet following Capuano’s violent outburst at a local theatre. The strangest, and most surprising of these pivotal life experiences however is the sexual awakening ‘gifted’ to him by the Baroness Focale (Betty Petrazi), the Schisa family’s elderly neighbour who fulfils the role referred to earlier in the film when Fabietto’s father advises him in matters of sex “for your first time, take whatever comes”.
All three of these events occur after the devastating loss of Fabietto’s parents to a carbon monoxide leak at their holiday apartment, and which splits the film into two distinct halves. Having chosen to stay in Napoli to watch his beloved Maradona play a game instead of accompanying his parents, The Hand of God becomes a dual reference to Maradona’s infamous goal against England at the 1986 World Cup, and a subsequent divine intervention that possibly saved the young director’s life.
It is Armando, Antonio Capuano, Baroness Focale and aunt Patrizia however that are the instruments of his salvation; people that provided guidance and direction to the boy at his greatest time of need… ‘to help you look to the future’ as the Baroness gently explains after he asks what her mission was by sleeping with him.
In telling this very personal story and in revisiting the most painful episode in his life, Sorrentino is both laying bare the tragedy that will never leave him and the event that would subsequently define him. An Argentinian footballer may have saved his life, but a jovial criminal, an abrasive film-maker and a haughty baroness would give it meaning.