fb-pixel Skip to main content

‘The Hand of God’ showcases a filmmaker’s eye

Paolo Sorrentino’s coming-of-age drama captures 1980s Naples when soccer superstar Diego Maradona joined the local team.

Filippo Scotti (right) stars in "The Hand of God."Netflix via AP

“The Hand of God” is a better “Belfast.” That is, like Kenneth Branagh’s recent release, it’s an episodic, impressionistic, ensemble-driven autobiographical drama centered on family and situated in a geographically specific place during a particular historical moment.

As regards being better, it helps that the place in question is Naples, a rather more inviting locale than Belfast. Paolo Sorrentino’s film opens with a gorgeous aerial tracking shot, approaching Naples from the sea. If an embrace can be visual and take in an entire city, then that’s what this is.

Toni Servillo (left) and Filippo Scotti in "The Hand of God." Gianni Fiorito/Netflix via AP

It also helps that instead of being organized around the start of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, Sorrentino’s film is set in the mid-’80s, with the central event being the soccer superstar Diego Maradona joining the local soccer team. (“The Hand of God” refers both to a famous, or infamous, World Cup goal Maradona scored and also a pivotal event in the movie.)

The biggest factor in the superiority of “The Hand of God” is that the filmmaker is Sorrentino (”Il Divo,” 2008; the Oscar-winning “The Great Beauty,” 2013; “Youth,” 2015). It’s not that Branagh is necessarily a bad director, but he’s not a born filmmaker the way Sorrentino is. Sorrentino intuitively gets the relationship among space, motion, and emotion, and he really does have a fabulous eye. Just this side of sumptuous, “The Hand of God” is beautiful to look at without ever being showy.


The film’s hero, Fabietto (Filippo Scotti), is 15 or so and lives with his parents, older brother, and sister. A surprisingly funny running gag is how the sister is always in the bathroom. Much of the first half of the movie has a winningly antic edge, until something very dark happens, it being that pivotal event in which Maradona sort of figures.

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 in "The Hand of God." Gianni Fiorito/Netflix via AP

The family extends well beyond the siblings and their parents. The Schisas are a clan: aunts, uncles, cousins, a fairly terrifying grandmother. The several family gatherings Sorrentino stages are very entertaining set-pieces and eccentricity abounds. Fabietto’s mother, Mari (Teresa Saponangelo), is an incorrigible prankster and quite the juggler. His father, Saverio (Toni Servillo), does a different kind of juggling act: He’s a banker who’s also a communist. Fabietto’s favorite relative is a very sexy aunt, Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri).


These characters are so vibrant and the episodes so richly imagined that it’s easy to overlook how shapeless “The Hand of God” is. The film has the vividness of memory, but also the structure of memory, which is to say no real structure at all. Visually, though, the movie is of a piece; it’s Sorrentino’s eye that holds it together.

From left: Filippo Scotti, Teresa Saponangelo, Marlon Joubert, and Toni Servillo in "The Hand of God." Gianni Fiorito/Netflix via AP

The most realistic thing in the movie, Fabietto’s deciding to become a film director, feels artificial as various fantastical moments do not. It’s the most realistic because, yes, we know that Sorrentino became just that. It’s artificial because it has none of the sense of compulsion that, say, Mari’s playing practical jokes does or Patrizia’s libidinal behavior. Unlike his relatives, Fabietto isn’t especially interesting. What adolescent male is? He has to become an actual filmmaker for that to happen. Once he does, he’ll presumably make a film as interesting as, let’s say, “The Hand of God.”



Written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Starring Filippo Scotti, Toni Servillo, Teresa Saponangelo, Marlon Joubert, Luisa Ranieri. At Kendall Square and streaming on Netflix. 130 minutes. R (language, nudity, sexual content). In Italian, with subtitles.


Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.