With “The Hand of God,” the great Neopolitan filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino turns his back — briefly — on the colorful tales of official corruption in his native land that made “Il Divo” and “Loro” so fascinating that they made his reputation.
He cashed a Netflix check and set out to make a semi-autobiographical fantasy, a movie about growing up in Naples in the Age of Maradona, when the Argentine soccer star arrived in impoverished, crime-and-corruption-ridden “Napoli” and made the locals forget their plight for a few years in the mid-80s.
But the film, which takes its title from an infamous “hand-ball” goal by Maradona in the 1986 World Cup, isn’t so much biography as a mash-up of many other such “origin” tales from other filmmakers. There are Fellini-esque touches and Fellini-esque grotesques, a little “Cinema Paradiso” here, a hint of Truffaut there.
It’s a long but watchable amble through a colorful place and time, with the time filmed through a distorted lens. A young soccer fan recalls a voluptuous but “crazy” aunt, huge family luncheons under the grape arbors of a hillside villa, a nascent filmmaker “talking” about pursuing a life in the cinema, hanging with family and friendly criminals, all of them living in breathless anticipation mixed with “He’ll never come here” despair over Diego Maradona’s destination after being all but run out of Barcelona in 1984.
The film lacks much in the way of cohesion or narrative drive. And there’s an “all these bourgeois filmmakers have the same origin story” vibe to it, thanks to its generic over-familiarity. But if you’re a fan, it’s worth a look, if not your full attention.
Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti) is the adored younger son of whimsical “communist” banker Saverio (Toni Servillo) and playful practical-joker Maria (Teresa Saponangelo). He’s in his mid-teens, and he seems to take in everything.
Such as the aftermath of the film’s opening scene. His braless bombshell aunt (Luisa Ranieri) is plucked from a bus stop and the surrounding traffic jam by a rich old man in an ancient Rolls Royce. He takes her to his dilapidated mansion where he addresses her inability to conceive with a blessing from “The Little Monk” and a slap on the rump.
Her enraged husband sees the cash stuffed in her purse and beats her, not for the first time. She’s “turning tricks again.” Fabie is the only member of the family, which rushes over to intervene, to believe her. That creates a bond that we’re reminded of in their future encounters. “Crazy” or not, Aunt Patrizia is a stunner and isn’t shy about stripping down to prove it.
Fabie’s life is a tangle of family and more distant relations, neighbors whom his mother loves to prank, of casual lawlessness that’s tolerated even in polite society and only rarely interfered with by the police, on land or on the sparkling blue smuggler’s waters of the Gulf of Naples.
His father is his guide through all this, but our guide — writer-director Sorrentino — falls down on the job, time and again. He makes little effort to help the viewer keep all these old and morbidly-obese women and men, aunts, uncles and cousins straight. As Sorrentino also messes around with the timeline of events that Fabie witnesses — Maradona’s triumphs are all out of order, meeting a famous filmmaker who didn’t begin directing until the ’90s — “details” like that aren’t meant to matter.
Fabie tags along on brother Marchino’s (Marlon Joubert) audition to be an extra, a guy entirely too “normal” looking to fit in with Fellini’s affection for circus “freaks” and the like, who fill the waiting room.
It’s football that throws Fabie in with Armando (Biagio Manna), a bluff but amusing brute of a cigarette smuggler (by boat) who takes the kid under his wing.
And there’s also third act mentor, a Neopolitan filmmaker, Antonio Capuono, who bullies and blusters and shoots a fanciful film in the streets at night.
“Got a story to tell,” the always-shouting Capuono (Ciro Capano) explodes, in Italian with English subtitles. “Have some GUTS!”
But one wonders about Sorrentino’s “guts” here. He’s pieced together a slice-of-life growing up in Naples picturebook — complete with a tragedy that isn’t handled all that tragically, a few chuckles and a visit to a nude beach.
The kid is more of a place-holder than any compelling center to the film. And none of the supporting characters, from an actress relative to the “crazy” aunt to his brother or the cigarette smuggler Armando, is developed enough to make a difference.
Settling on “futbol” as an organizing principle seems an afterthought, much like showing Maradona’s titular goal before he signs with Naples.
As random as it all is, “The Hand of God” does add up to a “movie” in the broadest sense, just not a very coherent or interesting one.
If there’s a hallmark to pretty much all of Netflix’s flirtations with great filmmakers, it’s “indulgent” and “flaccid” films that spare no expense turning out that way.
Rating: R for sexual content, language, some graphic nudity and brief drug use.
Cast: Filippo Scotti, Teresa Saponangelo, Toni Servillo, Luisa Ranieri, Biagio Manna and Ciro Capano,
Credits: Scripted and directed by Paolo Sorrentino. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:10