I often felt impatient during my viewing of Paolo Sorrentino’s new film “The Hand of God”, which was released in South Korean yesterday before being available on Netflix two weeks later. While it is Sorrentino’s another distinctive work which also has some personal elements to notice and appreciate, the movie did not engage me that much due to its tediously laid-back narrative and superficial characterization, and there was not enough emotional resonance for me around the end of its supposedly poignant coming-of-age drama.
The movie, which was incidentally shot in Sorrentino’s hometown Naples, Italy in the 1980s, begins with the stunning opening shot which will grab your attention right from its first few seconds. After initially sweeping above the sea of the Mediterranean for a while, the camera slowly looks up to show us the wide and lovely view of Naples, and then it focuses on one classic car moving along a beach road before eventually looking at the buildings of Naples again.
This car later stops at a bus station where a bunch of women waiting for their bus to arrive. The man in the backseat of the car calls for one of these women, and, though she does not trust this stranger that much, she soon gets on the car and goes somewhere along with him. He promises her that he will make her get what she has wanted so much, and she follows his instruction although what she comes to experience is rather baffling in addition to being not very pleasant.
Anyway, when she subsequently returns to her home where her husband is waiting, they soon come to have a fight, but the movie is not mainly about this problematic couple. After getting her call, her older sister Maria (Teresa Saponangelo) and Maria’s husband Saverio (Toni Servillo) come along with their adolescent son Fabietto (Filippo Scotti), and Fabietto comes to experience something he will never forget because of his aunt’s apparently unstable psychological status.
After this eventful night, the movie lets us get to know more about Fabietto and his family. While he is often proud of being a communist, Saverio has actually worked in a big bank of the city, and he and Maria have maintained a fairly stable relationship even though it later turns out that there is a big problem behind their back. Fabietto’s older brother has recently been trying on the extra audition for Federico Fellini’s new film, but it looks like he will not get any part no matter how much he tries. In case of Fabietto’s older sister…. well, we seldom see her because she is usually in the bathroom whenever the movie shows her interaction with the other family members.
We also get to know a number of people surrounding this fairly ordinary middle-class family. An old baroness and her adult son live right above their apartment, and the baroness and Maria sometimes exchange some gossips whenever she comes down to their apartment. In case of one certain female neighbor living on the same floor, Maria hates her guts for some reason, and there is a little amusing moment when she gives that neighbor a prank call just for her little naughty amusement.
And there are a bunch of colorful relatives who often gather around Fabietto and his family whenever they have a chance. Watching how they enjoy their summer afternoon outside the city at one point, I could not help but think of how my mother and many of her family members often enjoyed summer together on the east coast of the Korean Peninsula during my childhood years, though that is not possible anymore at present because they all became estranged from each other later due to a trivial money problem.
Besides all these numerous figures surrounding Fabietto and his family, the movie also has Diego Maradona, a famous real-life Argentine soccer player about whom many of citizens of Naples have been quite excited. Just like everyone around him, Fabietto has been very enthusiastic about Maradona, and he is even willing to watch Maradona’s another game at a local stadium instead of spending a brief winter vacation along with his parents outside the city.
Now all these and other elements in the film including Fabietto’s growing fascination with filmmaking will surely take you back to Fellini’s several classic films ranging from “I vitelloni” (1953) to “Amacord” (1973), but Sorrentino’s screenplay somehow often struggles to make them gel together without generating enough narrative centripetal force – even after one devastating incident in the middle of the story. Despite Filippo Scotti’s earnest acting, Fabietto remains to be a blank background for other characters even around the ending, and many of substantial supporting characters surrounding Fabietto are more or less than broad caricatures without much depth, though Toni Servillo, who has been one of Sorrentino’s frequent collaborators since Sorrentino’s debut feature film “One Man Up” (2001), and Teresa Saponangelo acquit themselves well as a couple who has stuck together for many years despite their flawed but enduring marital relationship.
While notably subdued and restrained compared to many of his stylish works such as Oscar-winning film “The Great Beauty” (2013), “The Hand of God”, which received the Grand Jury Prize when it had a premiere at the Venice International Film Festival in this September and then was selected as the Italy’s entry for Best International Film Oscar, did not click well with me on the whole, and I think this is another misfire in Sorrentino’s career after “Loro” (2018). I do understand that the movie is quite personal to Sorrentino, but, alas, I still do not feel much of that aspect for now.