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Written and directed by Paul Sorrentino
Featuring Filippo Scotti, Toni Servillo and Luisa Raneri
Classification R; 130 minutes
Opens in select theaters on December 3, including the TIFF Lightbox; streaming on Netflix from December 15th
God’s hand is the kind of vigorous Italian neorealist dramatic comedy that they no longer do – perhaps with good reason.
Having proven his gifts for awe-inspiring cinematic sensuality in The great beauty, Youth and HBO The young pope, Italian author Paolo Sorrentino makes the inevitable jump to Netflix for his 10th feature film, which won the Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival this year. Although there are more nip-slips here than in a direct VOD sequel from american pie, Sorrentino remains a sentimentalist at heart. God’s hand is a melancholy coming-of-age story that remains the story of the director Amarcord, filled with a character unsuccessfully auditioning to be an extra in a Fellini film. It’s also way too long and too precious to itself, but you just have to deal with it, okay?
The first aerial shot illustrates Sorrentino’s flair for seeing symbolism as his camera flies over Naples, boats dot the shore, until he meets a hearse passing by on the road. We soon turn around in time to meet the Schisa clan, a family of broad Italian comedic stereotypes – at odds with the melancholy undertones of Sorrentino’s script. Our central protagonist – and director’s substitute – is Fabrietto (Timothée Chalamet-esque Filippo Scotti’s newcomer), a teenage alien who likes to stand in the shadows watching and listening to electro on his Walkman. At family reunions, he quietly covets his domestic violence victim Aunt Patrizia (Luisa Raneri) with an exhibitionist streak, and his penchant for undressing at Schisa reunions fuels Fabrietto’s sexual arousal in the crudest way. .
In God’s hand, even if you masturbate inappropriately while thinking of them, family is all about comfort. Fabrietto has no friends and loves spending time with his complicated parents. His warm and compassionate mother, Maria (Teresa Saponagelo), also enjoys playing petty pranks on relatives and neighbors, and his father Saverio (Sorrentino mainstay Toni Servillo), is a nonchalant communist with a longtime mistress, who eats Mary alive. They watch football matches, cheer each other up and are obsessed with the possible return of Barcelona player Diego Maradona to Napoli, which becomes a central part of the film. Fabrietto also shares a room with his older brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert), an aspiring actor, who tries to bring his younger brother into adulthood as best he can after the brother’s life falls apart in because of a cruel and unexpected tragedy.
As Call me by your name, the film is set in the 1980s, with intimate and lavish scenes of domestic life during the Italian summer. There are the obligatory scenes of long languid lunches in the open air, with Maria and Saverio mocking their weaker and simpler parents, which naturally ends with Patrizia sunbathing naked on a boat while Fabrietto and her brother watch excitedly. When Maria is tasked with saving her sister from brutal domestic assault, the camera follows Fabrietto on a high-speed scooter, leading to her rescue, as his laughing parents cling to their son for life. It’s an image of innocence that Sorrentino comes back to often – his last happiest moment.
God’s hand wants to know why people shaped by trauma become filmmakers, and Fabrietto’s pain reflects Sorrentino’s own loss of his parents at a young age. Behind the raw and ecstatic artifice hides a risky and melancholy keyed novel which is the filmmaker’s most honest work. Later in the film, the young Fabrietto has a chance encounter with Italian director Antonio Capuano (here played by Ciro Capano), who gave Sorrentino his first real life screenwriting credit. Fabrietto confesses to him that he wants to make films now, saying: “I want an imaginary life, like the one I had before.” The cinema will always be an escape for Sorrentino, which explains his maximalist style.
Of course, by 2021 standards, God’s hand is also a terribly archaic film. It’s indulgent, with a masculine, solipsistic gaze, a puffy portrayal of an artist as a young man that only the Hollywood Foreign Press Association could love. Yet there is something magical about Sorrentino’s tender and imperfect family portrait that risks social taboos. I’d rather watch something beautiful and silly vying for real emotional truth than the most aroused, sanitized cinema that only wants my approval. God’s hand is a sprawling and beautiful mess that you just can’t look away from – and it just might break your heart.
In the interest of consistency across all critical critics, The Globe has removed its star rating system in film and theater to align with the coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critics’ Choice designation throughout the cover.