A boy is following an older man through the streets of Naples after dark. The man (Ciro Capano), a famous filmmaker, has just stormed out of a small theatre after causing a scene. The boy, Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti), a lanky teen with a mop of chestnut curls, can’t believe what he just saw, but knows he wants to see more of it, and gives chase.
“What are you looking at?” barks the artist. “Looking is all I know how to do,” the kid replies. And this is true: throughout The Hand of God, the funny, sensuous, sad new film from Italy’s Paolo Sorrentino, all Fabietto does is observe and absorb, soaking in the sights of his home city and the lives of its residents for some as-yet-undetermined purpose.
Except we know what that purpose is really. To all intents and purposes, Fabietto is the young Sorrentino, amassing inspiration for his future career – and the film about this process is a wistful, winking cinematic scrapbook of the director’s teenage years in 1980s Naples. Sorrentino’s ability to glide with ease between the trashy and profound, and even find profundity in trash, has in the past earned him comparisons to his countryman Federico Fellini. And if Sorrentino’s 2013 film The Great Beauty was a 21st-century take on Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, then The Hand of God is surely his Amarcord. Fellini himself even makes an off-camera cameo of sorts as the ringmaster of a circus-like audition scene which Fabietto attends with his older brother Marchino, an aspiring actor played by Marlon Joubert.
The title, of course, is a reference to Diego Maradona, who made his fateful move from Barcelona to Napoli in the same decade in which the film takes place. The footballer features only obliquely, appearing fully on screen just once during a chance public sighting, causing the entire street to freeze in fright, like an impromptu religious tableau. But his influence on Fabietto’s life suggests – especially at one agonisingly tragic juncture – that divine intervention is at work.
Yet Fabietto is just a blank slate. The unforgettable folk here are the supporting players: his twinkling, fallible father Saverio (Sorrentino’s longtime leading man, the great Toni Servillo), his razor-sharp, prank-playing mother Maria (an outstanding Teresa Saponangelo), and what feels like around 50 other relatives, neighbours and oddball acquaintances who come rattling in and out of the scenes. The first we meet is Aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), the great sexual awakener in young Fabietto’s life: she’s introduced from a suitably awestruck low angle, breasts jutting like a battleship’s prow. In a sequence that unfurls like a fairy-tale, she is lured by a local worthy to an eerie, crumbling palazzo, where a strange encounter takes place. It’s the weirdest scene in the film by far, but like a slug of grappa in a morning espresso, its effects linger, heightening and addling all that follows.
Pointedly – and, for this director, unusually – music is used only rarely, and the action is accompanied instead by the sounds of the city itself. A formative sexual encounter, tense and surreal, plays out to the rhythmic shudder of a nearby washing machine. Then there’s the chatter: in an all-time great Sorrentino scene, a Schisa family lunch collapses into an all-out insult war, which only becomes funnier with the introduction of every combatant.
The film doesn’t have a plot so much as people, and in its later passages there is a growing sense of one relationship after another being tied up before Fabietto can strike out on his own. But throughout, Sorrentino and his cast make these teenage recollections twinge with freshness. Like our own sharpest memories of adolescence, the haze of nostalgia doesn’t dull their edge.
15 cert, 130 min. Dir: Paolo Sorrentino. In cinemas now, and on Netflix from December 15