When Diego Maradona led the Argentinian team to glory at the 1986 World Cup, it was not the final, victorious match of the series that contained his most iconic moment as a player. That arrived instead during the quarter finals, when Maradona humiliated the English football team on the field, in what some saw as poetic retribution for The Falklands War. Maradona’s second goal of the game was so spectacular it has been called “The Goal Of The Century.” His first, though, is perhaps even better remembered and more grandly immortalized: He nudged the ball slightly by hand, a goal that technically should have been disallowed. Unrepentant, Maradona later said that he scored “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.”
It’s those famous remarks that supply a title for Paolo Sorrentino’s semi-autobiographical drama, set in the 1980s Naples of the director’s youth. Here, Maradona looms large. The entire city waits with bated breath to see if the mighty Argentinian will join their team. Characters state in deadpan that if he doesn’t come to play for Napoli they will kill themselves. Young men debate whether sex or Maradona is better. Sweetest of all, when our young protagonist, Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti), has a panic attack, his older brother (Marlon Joubert) holds him close and whispers, “Think about Maradona.”
To give away the further significance of “The Hand Of God” to Sorrentino’s life could be considered a spoiler, though many fans of the Italian director will be aware of what happened to him as a young man. The film works from either perspective, foreshadowing subtly enough not to distract those who are unaware but slowly ramping up the devastation for those who are.
Sorrentino’s heightened account of his early manhood feels more like a bundle of overlapping personal recollections than a straightforward narrative. Time, space, tone, and plausibility bend from scene to scene. The film views these formative experiences through the rose-tinted lens of treasured memories—the sea and sky always the boldest of blues, the women’s hair coiffed perfectly stiff, the famously decaying grandeur of Naples lent a new sheen.
That warm nostalgia largely works in the movie’s favor, particularly during a lunchtime spent with the extended family, enjoying jovial back-and-forths over fresh mozzarella with a Mediterranean Sea backdrop. The fast-paced quipping is hilarious; even when someone punches down, they do so with an irresistible twinkle in their eye. Fabietto’s delightfully mischievous mother, Maria (Teresa Saponangelo), would seem like a faultless manifestation of maternal love—a pure Madonna figure—were it not for the crack comic timing of the performance. And while the boy’s sharp, flawed father, Saverio (Toni Servillo), might harbor certain attitudes that look outdated today, he also expresses a nurturing love for his son radically free of masculine posturing. There’s a chemistry in this family every bit as exquisite as the Neapolitan scenery.
Where the film borders on tediously retrograde is in its approach to women’s bodies, which (Maria aside) cleave neatly into two categories: alluring or monstrous. Sorrentino shoots the larger women from a dehumanizing distance, reducing them to objects of ridicule; one cannot simply blame this on the regressive values of 1980s Naples. The Hand Of God is no more respectful of their mental health or the violence committed against them—there’s a strange flatness of motive to how it approaches both. Treated worst of all is Fabietto’s much lusted-after Aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), introduced in the surreal prologue and then eventually reduced to a sex object on a downward spiral, increasingly stripped of her dreams, sanity, and vanity. Fabietto (and perhaps, by extension, Sorrentino) considers her his muse, but the film luxuriates in punishing this woman for her sexual immodesty.
Perhaps such an immature take on womanhood can be chalked up to the film staying firmly within a teenage boy’s developing point-of-view. Yet The Hand Of God is most uncertain in the handling of its central character, who remains a passive, virtually invisible observer despite the young star’s charisma. Though this is ostensibly a coming-of-age story, it’s hard to identify any growth in Fabietto’s various escapades. His sole moment of emotional breakdown is shot from behind, with sobbing sounds that seem suspiciously added in post.
Even the boy’s desire to become a film director is more explicitly stated than ever felt, though Sorrentino is hardly shy about placing himself within a cinematic dynasty. Fellini, whose influence is as plain here as it was in The Great Beauty, appears as a quasi-mythic figure, sorting through headshots like a disinterested god. Meanwhile, the legendary Antonio Capuano is a Neapolitan Cyrano De Bergerac, shouting at the theater and inspiring young Fabiano. “I can do whatever the fuck I want,” he fearlessly claims. “I am free.”
Yet Sorrentino’s film might have benefitted from a little less freedom. It has as many superfluous sequences as great ones, with moments that serve no grander purpose than landing a single joke. In the final act, Sorrentino stacks conclusions on top of conclusions, as though he were building a shaky tower of hats. Still, as with the life of Maradona, it’s the intermittent flashes of brilliance—the hand of God moments—that stay with you.