Fabietto (Filippo Scotti), the autobiographical hero of Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Hand of God,” is a teenager growing up in the 1980s in the bustling port metropolis of Naples, and he keeps a watchful gaze on just about everything. He’s like the eye at the center of a storm of avidly impassioned but overstated filmmaking. Filippo Scotti, the actor who plays him, is handsome in a pale way, with curly hair and a presence that’s elegant in its quietude. There’s something Chalamet-esque about him; at the same time, you could imagine him playing the young Bob Dylan. The year is 1984, and Fabietto is a kid who knows how to fit in but still sets himself apart. He wears a small hoop earring (not so common back then), and he’s got a Walkman whose earphones are always draped around his neck. In the cracked asphalt field at school, the boys playing football come off, in comparison, like rambunctious zombies. Yet Fabietto, in his way, is as much of a sports fiend as they are. There are rumors that Diego Maradona, the Argentine football superstar, is about to join the Naples team (the rumors turn out to be true), and for Fabietto, like everyone else in Naples, it’s as if Jesus himself were about to arrive.
As you watch “The Hand of God,” it’s easy to vibrate sympathetically with Fabietto, because he’s got a sly, pensive curiosity that you can tell will take him places. For most of the movie, however, the places he goes tend to involve his extended family, as well as the occasional scoundrel he hooks up with in town. And while it’s easy to feel that Sorrentino is pulling what you see directly out of his diary (the action is loose, quirky, anecdotal), you wish that he’d portrayed the other characters as he does his surrogate hero. Most of them are presented in a way that’s raucous and overly broad — like, for instance, Fabietto’s embattled Aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), a beauty who flirts with him, or her husband, Franco (Massimilliano Gallo), who’s convinced that she’s a “whore” and responds by screaming at her and beating her up, even though she makes it clear that all she really wants is to have a child. It’s not that this kind of abuse isn’t “real.” It’s that the movie shoves it in your face, so that it’s less than convincing. At a get-together in the country, the relatives berate each other with the glib high-volume toxicity of characters out of a bad Lina Wertmüller film.
In an interview with Variety, Sorrentino confesses that before he made “The Hand of God,” “I think I had overdone it with some films that were too built, that were a bit overwrought.” I agree, but you have to wonder if he’ll be saying the same thing about this one in 10 years. “The Hand of God” has some good scenes, but it’s the kind of portrait-of-an-artist drama where you watch the insults, the clashes, the assaultive attitude of it all and you think: Is this what it was actually like for the young Sorrentino growing up in Naples? Or does he simply have an aversion to scenes that don’t hit you over the head?
The scenes with Fabietto’s parents strike a more compelling note. His father, Saverio (Toni Servillo), is an ebullient older chap who works in a bank but still considers himself a Communist. The family lives in a modest apartment complex, where Fabietto and his older brother, Marchino (Marlon Joubert), share a dingy bedroom, and where the family gathers around a small TV set that Saverio changes the channels of by poking it with a stick (he’s too much of a Communist to buy a remote). Fabietto’s mother, Maria (Teresa Saponangelo), loves to stage practical jokes, and she and Saverio seem quite lovey-dovey, until it’s revealed that he has a long-term mistress, at which point Maria fills the apartment with screams of agony, which sets Fabietto to shaking so badly that he seems on the verge of a seizure. Once again: High drama…or dramatic hyperbole? Maybe both.
Watching “The Hand of God,” it’s hard not be reminded of a certain other autobiographical drama by an Italian filmmaker: Fellini’s “Amarcord” (1973). That movie, for all its wistful dream-time nostalgia, had its own rather broad side (I adored it when I was 16, which may be just the right age for it), and a male-gaze lustiness that Sorrentino echoes, notably in the scene where Fabietto finally loses his virginity. It’s with a character we would have least expected him to do that with — and there’s something bracing about it, because the actress, Betti Pedrazzi, is superb, and it has the feel of a true experience. There are other moments with that quality, like the one where Maria says of Marchino, “We’ve lost him” (because he’s got a girlfriend now), and we see the sadness with which she’s watching her sons grow up.
Fellini is actually in this movie (or, at least, his voice). Machino, an aspiring actor, goes to audition for a new Fellini film (in the waiting room, everyone is dressed like their idea of a Fellini extra), only to be told by the maestro that he looks like a waiter. But just the momentary proximity to Fellini lights a spark in Fabietto. He decides that he wants to become a film director, a desire enhanced when he watches the shooting of a movie in the middle of town. Yet it’s an odd thing: We know, of course, that Paolo Sorrentino did go on to become a filmmaker, but nothing in Fabietto’s presence suggests that he’s got a jones for cinema, or even what it is about being a director that attracts him. That Sorrentino bungles this is a serious sign of his limitations as a screenwriter.
The central incident in “The Hand of God,” which I won’t reveal, is the sudden tragedy that came to define Sorrentino’s youth. It’s quite a shock to experience, and Sorrentino infuses a scene at the hospital with a lacerating raw power. It’s one of a number of moments where you feel like you can glimpse the richer, better, subtler movie that’s struggling to get out from the soulful but too often hamhanded one that “The Hand of God” is.