About a week ago, I was listening to an interview with Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club, in which he was discussing his process as a writer. He attributes one aspect of his writing as a major reason his works became a success and that was his ability to play with the tone of a scene or set of dialogue. The goal would be to start off in one mode, say comedic for example, and then flip the scene to tragic, in as little time used as possible. This would create a rift in emotions that all but guarantees an adequate and comparable emotional response. It is in creating these rifts of emotion that Paolo Sorrentino crafts a modern coming-of-age tale centered around Fabietto Schisa, as it brilliantly balances themes of lust, love, death, pain, joy, and family. If I could say only one thing about The Hand of God, it would be that this film is a remarkable achievement in filmmaking.
To Grow in Italy
Taking liberty with his own upbringing, Sorrentino tells the story of Fabietto (Fillipo Scotti), a teenager growing up in 1980s Naples. He lives with his parents and brother, as well as a sister that isn’t seen because she is too preoccupied with her morning ritual. One thing is made quite clear from the first minutes of this film, the characters feel abundantly real. Each one comes with their own habits, rhythms, and idiosyncrasies that fold over and blend with one another in such a cacophonous manner, that it becomes messy, hilarious, and relatable. From the grandparent that likes to curse at everyone in the family when prompted. An aunt believing in superstition to an unhealthy degree. The aging cousin who is committed to the city’s football (soccer) team that he threatens to kill himself if the player of a generation, Maradona, does not sign a contract.
Fabietto absorbs the personalities around him through the lens of his father, Saverio (Toni Servillo), as a way to understand how to exist within the dynamics of the family. As events continue to happen, Fabietto grows more and more confident in his own identity, allowing him to become more present in what is happening around him.
The film moves in a linear fashion in terms of when things happen and why, but the presentation of it all is done through smaller vignette-style chunks. It is this presentation style that gives Sorrentino control over the emotional journey he wants his audience to experience. It is the transition between scenes in which he plays with tonal juxtaposition, moving between emotions fast and without mercy, but not in such a way that it comes across as manipulative storytelling, far from it.
Coming of Age
Sorrentino’s greatest tonal shift is about half way through, when the film turns from a largely comic story into a tragic one. This forces Fabietto into making choices for himself as a man, rather than as a boy under the guidance of his parents. It is this turning point where I felt Scotti’s performance elevate and grow in tandem with the character, as he had to hold up more of the film on his own and manages it very well.
This is a film about Fabietto struggling to discover who he really is and what goals he wants to pursue considering the tragedy of events that have befallen him and his family. He is a boy stuck in limbo, with not many people to look up to and uncertainty around every corner. I cried and laughed out loud on multiple occasions as Fabietto tried to put it all together.
To Naples, with Love
The cinematography is a sight to behold. The exterior pans of Naples and the Italian coast just sing, it is perfection. Cinematographer Daria D’Antonio with Sorrentino are constantly mixing up the colour palettes in the frame and everyone is majestic in their own right, making this one of the prettiest films I’ve seen. (I might be biased, because I adore Italy, but regardless, it’s still gorgeous to witness).
It is weird to note, however, that there are two instances of the absolute worst ADR sound put into a film. My perception could be off, and it could be a translation element that is not captioned properly, but both instances took me out of my viewing cadence and disrupted my screening.
Additionally, some of the scenes don’t completely work to promote Fabietto’s story, but these ones are early in the film, when his presence is intended to be more subdued, and the scenes are hilarious, all the same.
In some ways, this is a traditional “boy becomes a man” story, but it is told through characters who are messy and chaotic and random to the point that it more closely mimics real life than others in this genre. The beauty of its setting and the admiration that Sorrentino gives to his hometown is undeniable. His love for Naples radiates on camera. By the end of the film, Fabietto faces some tough questions about his life and how to move forward and the trifecta of what those questions are, his response to them, and eventually his answers, which are all relatable. It is a film that feels needed and yearned for, especially these days.
The Hand of God is now available to stream on Netflix. Watch the trailer here.