Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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THE HAND OF GOD/È STATA LA MANO DI DIO (Paolo Sorrentino 2021)


Sorrentino's magical reimagining of his own youth

After being taken to a theater to watch the dispiriting Being the Ricardos yesterday, that evening by myself I watched Paolo Sorrentino's The Hand of God on Netflix and was uplifted. Following a series of brilliant films on public subjects, Sorrentino has now made a passionate and personal one, more moving than anything he has done before. Whether it is a masterpiece or not I cannot say, but this, his first autobiographical film, is full of powerful emotion and one big memorable scene after another. It's hard for me to judge it objectively because I was in tears nearly all the way through.I have always loved coming-of-age movies. Not everyone does. This is an epic, grand one, magnificently Italian. As Sorrentino, who is now 51, has said in revisiting the scenes of the film, the Naples where he lived for 37 years but had not been for many years, he had almost forgotten, but when he came back, 37 years is a long time, so it all came back - all, all, all - "tutto, tutto, tutto." (Sorrentino's Italian has something at once extravagant and modest about it.) Returning to Naples was "scontrare con il massimo del dolore e il massimo della gioia," "to encounter immense pain and immense joy."

Italians have a matter of fact, repressed side, but we know them truly as operatic scene stealers. We have to realize that this is their natural element, and for them is sincere. Sorrentino however is here not just being Italian but redefining the autobiographical film as opera. If you tune in, you get a sequence of breathtakingly powerful and beautiful scenes that grow out of deep, personal feeling, a kind of grandiose sincerity. This is today's greatest Italian director working balls-out at the height of his powers. This is everything that is extravagant and magical about Italian culture - and film, with a frank debt to Fellini but Fellini reimagined in a new, utterly personal way.

It's the story of Fabietto (memorable newcomer Filippo Scotti), a slim, curly-haired young fellow with a bigger, older brother, Marchino (Marlon Joubert), a would-be actor, and two parents, Saverio (Toni Servillo) and Maria (Teresa Saponangelo). The latter will be taken from him in the most wrenching moment at the center of the film. It's this "immense pain" that will turn him into an artist, though he is full of doubt, but, quite young, with little experience of movies, convinced that he wants to become a director.

Before we reach this point there is a lovely, humorous, baroque, Felliniesque panorama of all the colorful people in Fabietto's life. They include notably, besides his Mamma and Papà whom he loves deeply, the Baronessa (Betty Pedrazzi), an aristocratic, ironic figure, and the doomed, lovely Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri) - the first of whom will relieve him of his virginity, and the second is to be his inspiration, object of desire, and muse.

Through it all there is a public theme too, the most public of themes, for this is the moment in the mid-Eighties when Argentine midfielder superstar Diego Maradona, the greatest footballer of all time (as the screen title emphatically tells us) is bought by the Naples team and Napoli becomes champion of all of Italy, an immense event for Neapolitans, whose passion for soccer is incalculable. This everyone shares, for Italy is a monoculture. In Italy you don't have a choice: everyone lunches and naps at the same hour, and when a roar of applause for Maradona is heard, it rings out from every balcony. "The hand of god" is Maradona's, a fault of touching the ball illegally to score a goal that is given a transcendental interpretation by one of the figures in Fabietto's life. Maradona is a wonder, and this thread underlines how Fabietto's young life as Sorrentino reimagines his own youth, is suffused with magic, as well as extremes joy and sorrow, delight and pain.

Perhaps a few of the grand sequences and set pieces of this film, such as Fabietto's encounter with a brusque director who speaks in dialect and with a rough young smuggler and motorboat pilot who makes Fabietto a friend, may seem too fanciful; the seduction of the Baronessa may seem borderline embarrassing; the relationship with the older brother, for all its imagined intimacy and love, may seem too superficial. But no matter, it is a bold stroke to make this slight young man the center of the film, a creature evidently becoming, not yet resolved. There is a mastery here that weaves all the sequences together into one flowing, pulsating panorama. I am in thrall to its joy and pain when I watch this film. Even if I am admiring it too much I would not admire it any less. This kind of dazzling fluency with images and people and scenes reminds me why I love movies, and how at its best cinema becomes the most complete of art forms. The saddest thing of all is that it reminds us how great Italian movies used to be.

The Hand of God/ È stata la mano di Dio, 130 mins., debuted at Venice, where it received the Grand Jury Prize, and the Marcello Mastroianni Award for its star, Fillipo Scotti. Sorrentino won the 2014 Best Foreign Film Oscar and numerous other international awards and nominations for La Grande Bellezza/The Great Beauty. All his most important films have starred the brilliant Toni Servillo, except this one, where he steps back and plays the young protagonist's father. This film is under appreciated by Anglophone critics: Metascore 76%. Not so in France, where its AlloCiné critics rating is 4.1, 82%. It is Italy's Oscar entry for 2022. In theaters in limited release from Nov. 24, 2021 and on Netflix from Dec. 15.

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