30 December 2021
Perhaps Paolo Sorrentino is one of those people who reveal the beauty that escapes our notice, but that we know we need and want to envy. Because, we marvel at his every scene, and it seems like his every frame could win a prize at a prestigious photography contest. However, this Italian TV and film director does not contend, at least not in that naïve sense that would imply that each art form lives for itself. He creates his own universe, imbued with elegance and luxury, with clearly stylized and sensual scenes, sometimes controversial, always provocative and, we could say, baroque kitsch. But at the same time—irresistible.
Sorrentino's universe does not rest on the principle of "less is more". On the contrary, more is better but never, in the truest Sorrentino fashion, too much. For more than twenty years, we have been wondering how he creates his, so seductive, reality. The young, sixteen-year-old Paolo Sorrentino did not like the harsh reality, instead he wanted to find a new one, but he did not know where to look for it... Until he discovered cinematic art, imaginary, exactly the kind we see today in his creations. Now we finally know why Sorrentino felt this need. But for that, he had to go deep into the past to his Naples and reveal to us that his life could be described as "The hand of God", which is also the title of his new autobiographical film.
If the film is to be judged by its title, football fanatics will certainly imagine this film as a biography of one of the most memorable football players of all time, Diego Maradona, Sorrentino's idol who fatefully shaped the director's life. Yet, the handling goal at the Mundial '86 is not the only miracle that Maradona achieved; it matters more to us that he saved young Sorrentino’s life.
The first frame—a smile. The emotion Sorrentino evokes in us every time we start his film and we feel the wave of beauty starting to engulf us. This time, that beauty is invoked by the scenes of the Bay of Naples in the eighties, while the camera slowly approaches that Mediterranean city. In the distance is the majestic Capri. The tone is calm, we recognize the constant hum of a helicopter while enjoying Naples from a bird's-eye view. In the next scene, we are greeted by Naples as we expect it—the city's evening bustle and traffic jam seasoned with some southern temperament. This is how this director’s autobiographical film begins - and we know that we will finally learn why Sorrentino makes these kinds of films and which sentiments shaped his seductive aesthetic while he was growing up.
When thinking about the film, I try to imagine the same story but how it would play out on the theatrical stage. The play would certainly be divided into two acts. During the first act break, the audience would casually comment on the plot, their faces wreathed in smiles because the plot would be smooth, light, cheerful, and witty... It would, in fact, be a plot that does not encourage thinking and lively discussions during the break. I do not know how it would be conjured up for the audience, but if there was a break after the first hour, the audience would probably comment that this was just another beautiful spectacle by Sorrentino in which nothing much happens (which is true for his other works as well). After that fictitious break, Sorrentino would suddenly twist the comedy into a drama, and the theatre audience—that during the break was discussing topics unrelated to what happened onstage, all the while not expecting a significant plot twist in the second act— would leave the play in silence, with lumps in their throats.
The tone of the film changes abruptly after the scene of the soccer match in which Maradona scores his most famous goal and the phrase "the hand of God" takes on a different meaning, crucial for this autobiographical work. Sorrentino's mother Maria leaves with his father Saverio (played by Sorrentino's favorite Toni Servillo) to their newly renovated house in the mountains. Young Paolo (called Fabietto in the film) does not go with them, but instead tells his mother that Napoli is playing at home and that Diego, his idol who, to everyone's surprise, transferred from the great Barcelona to the not very successful Napoli, is waiting for him at the game. In the end, that soccer match saved his life because the vacation in the mountains proved to be fatal for Sorrentino's parents who suffered a carbon monoxide poisoning from the gas that quietly crept from the fireplace, the same fireplace that Maria was looking forward to in the first "cheerful" part of the film.
Consequently, we are suddenly looking at a new Sorrentino—both the one of today, standing beside the camera directing the moves, and the young one, our film’s hero who is suddenly no longer just a passive observer. We begin to get to know him as a person. It becomes clear to us that he is different from others, that he has no friends and that he is not sure what he wants and what he thinks. Young Sorrentino is portrayed by Filippo Scotti, a Neapolitan actor whose character in the film is called Fabietto Schisa. The only people dear to Fabietto were his parents and his large Italian family, seemingly idyllic up until that fatal moment. His aunt Patrizia is the object of his sexual desire and later becomes his muse, which is also a pattern in other Sorrentino’s films. Fabietto's brother, Marchino, wants to become an actor and Fabietto often accompanies him to auditions, including one of Fellini's, where he familiarizes himself with the creativity of film art. They also have a sister Daniela that we do not see until the very end—however, we hear her—she is constantly in the bathroom getting ready and does not allow others to enter. She even spends their parents' funeral in the bathroom. It is the grotesque that Sorrentino always includes throughout his oeuvre... Fabietto felt unconditional love for his parents and their absence is apparent in his actions, views about the future. After all, this is implied in the most profound quote from the film in which the young Fabietto says: “Life, now that my family has fallen apart, I don't like it anymore. I don't like it anymore. I want another, imaginary one, the same one I had before. I don't like reality anymore. Reality is bad. That's why I want to make films.”
Maradonna and Fellini are undoubtedly Sorrentino's idols: the former saved the young Sorrentino’s life, and the latter shaped the "modern Fellini". Sorrentino adores the directing "maestro", but his directing methods are fundamentally different: he does not distort reality but, on the contrary, emphasizes details. Thus, Sorrentino made true film about a life made for films. His ability to construct, layer and organize a film composed entirely of his own thoughts, observations and memories remains forever intriguing.
One Sunday afternoon in '86, while the entire Peninsula celebrates the new Italian champion (Napoli), the camera follows the young Sorrentino as he walks through the streets of his hometown on his way to the station. We see again the young man who throughout the film has headphones in his ears and wears the iconic Sony Walkman attached to his jeans. But now, finally, for the first time we hear the music he listens to: as he departs for Rome, the city that will help him realize his dreams about making films, Pino Daniele and his "Napule E" is playing in his ears—Naples is a thousand colours, Naples is the voice of children, It rises slowly, That is how you know you are not alone... Naples is the bitter sun, Naples is the smell of the sea, Naples is dirty waste paper, and no one cares, and everyone is just waiting for fate... This is how Paolo Sorrentino was born, a man who shapes style with his aesthetics, for which many are grateful. So let this also be a dedication to him, to the one who managed to create his own reality.