REVIEW: È stata la mano di Dio [The Hand of God] [2021]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 130 minutes
    Release Date: November 24th, 2021 (Italy) / December 3rd, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Netflix
    Director(s): Paolo Sorrentino
    Writer(s): Paolo Sorrentino

Don’t come undone.

When an athlete as good as Diego Maradona arrives in your hometown to play for the home team, you’ll have to forgive the fans who embrace the awe and excitement with a hyperbolic notion that their own lives have been forever changed. When Alfredo (Renato Carpentieri) turns to young Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti) amidst rumors that Maradona is heading to Naples and says he’ll kill himself if they don’t turn out to be true, we believe him. This is a family marked by mean-spirited but loving insults, hilariously debilitating pranks, and a sobering severity where extreme emotional reactions are concerned, so you can never truly tell what is real or not. They play with fire, pursue happiness no matter the odds, and suffer the pain of losing everything.

And we feel every high and low thanks to writer/director Paolo Sorrentino mining his own childhood memories and imagination to give the Schisas life in È stata la mano di Dio [The Hand of God]. Fabietto is the youngest—a teenager studying classics with aspirations of pursuing philosophy until the allure of cinema catches his eye less because of the art (he admits to only seeing four movies) than the potential for escape and adventure. His parents (Toni Servillo‘s Saverio and Teresa Saponangelo‘s Maria) are free-spirited agents of chaos willing to ruin anyone’s day if it brings a smile to their faces. Call it payback since their other two children (Marlon Joubert‘s Marchino and the elusive Daniela) lack initiative and physical form (she won’t leave the bathroom) respectively.

Then there’s the criminal bureaucrat everyone loves because of the gifts he brings in exchange for looking the other way with his clients. The ornery matriarch lobbing curse words whenever anyone tries to engage her in conversation. The mentally unstable aunt (Luisa Ranieri‘s Patrizia) who is topless more than not to ignite her abusive husband’s anger as payback. The large pariah and her new boyfriend (a couple written so absurdly that you almost don’t feel sorry for laughing at the rude jokes made at their expense). And a handful of eccentric neighbors like the forever-bored Baroness (Betty Pedrazzi), the gullible actress Graziella (Birte Berg), and the penis-drawing, car-washing simpleton Mario. It’s a veritable circus of loudly brash mammals getting in everyone’s business for a lark. They’re Fabietto’s home.

The joy of watching them interact during the first half of the film provides one of the best times I’ve had in a theater all year. You can never expect what they’re going to do and what they’re going to see. Maradona driving down the street? Cigarette smugglers leading a high-speed boat chase with the police? Aunt Patrizia sunbathing naked on the boat when the entire family returns from their swim? It’s so wild that Fabietto has grown numb to the consequences. His reality has become such a fantasy of insane proportions that he’s never found the need to make friends or want to be anywhere but by their side. And when contrition is demanded? The rest can barely keep straight faces as he brashly reaches for dessert.

Fabietto’s family is a handicap as a result. Sorrentino is providing us this embarrassment of outlandish riches to show the unsustainable life this young man has enjoyed thus far without any true conflict. As much-talked-about director Antonio Capuano (Ciro Capano) exclaims, however, conflict is necessary for any great work of art. I only wish Sorrentino didn’t decide to drop it all in the middle of his film at once and render the second half inert to the point of disposability. Don’t get me wrong: I still enjoyed the whole. But the shift is so abrupt with the family all but disappeared that it’s impossible not to long for what once was. It’s intentional, obviously. Fabietto can’t either and that’s his problem. He needs to move forward.

Doing so won’t be easy and the people he thinks will help can’t while those he never thought would do. The journey is somewhat laborious in its seeming randomness, but no less enjoyable in its staccato bursts of fun. If not for the sustained laugh riot of the first half—wherein Fabietto is somewhat pushed to the background as a viewer like us—I probably would have found it successfully drawn. That’s unfortunately tough to do when you’ve just rode an adrenaline high into a brick wall. Because while Fabietto is “free” in the aftermath, we are not. He’s finding ways to construct his own identity in the absence of those for whom he rode the coattails. We’re conversely left treading water, wondering how much time is left.

It’s not Scotti’s fault by any means. When he’s finally asked to carry the film himself, he stands tall to fill the void left by an unforgettable duo of Servillo and Saponangelo. Their Saverio and Maria are an absolute joy regardless of the pain felt by those hurt at their expense. They’re at a consistent eleven with each other and anyone else who dares enter the frame, elevating the script either by exploiting straight men or reading and reacting against those up to the task of dishing right back. The pair proves to be the life of this party with Scotti supplying the beating heart growing wings dipped in the responsibility they skated by without. But the film’s soul lies with Ranieri. The sadness in her eyes hurts.

That’s intentional too. It’s what happens when you stay with this crazy family running amok in Naples. She searched for her escape and almost had it if not for the tragic circumstances surrounding past choices. And she knows Fabietto can find his own right now—before the latter start manifesting invisible chains around him to match hers. His dreams remain attainable because his pain arrived at a young enough age to overcome. But he’ll still have to take the leap. He’ll have to leave this city that’s finally coming to life with its new God on the soccer pitch. Who’s to say that wasn’t the plan anyway, though? If not for Maradona, none of what happened happens the same way. Through tragedy and elation, Fabietto still has hope.

[1] Set of “The hand of God” by Paolo Sorrentino. In the picture: Toni Servillo and Filippo Scotti. Photo by Gianni Fiorito
[2] Set of “The hand of God” by Paolo Sorrentino. In the picture from right: Filippo Scotti, Toni Servillo, Renato Carpentieri, Mimma Lovoi, Marlon Joubert, Franco Pinelli, Carmen Pommella, Teresa Saponangelo, Massimiliano Gallo, Antonella Morea, Monica Nappo and Luisa Ranieri. Photo by Gianni Fiorito
[3] Set of “The hand of God” by Paolo Sorrentino. In the picture: Filippo Scotti, Toni Servillo, Teresa Saponangelo and Marlon Joubert. Photo by Gianni Fiorito

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