Warning: minor spoilers for The Hand of God.
American moviegoers have been conditioned to associate Italian culture with pop culture trends. This miseducation applies especially to Film Twitter, evidenced by the startling amount of people who used the November 2021 House of Gucci release to make cheap jokes about Italian culture, and of course with the usual “It’s a Me, Mario” lingo. In a time when filmmakers get hung out to dry for depicting problematic characters — which is much different than endorsing problematic characters — why is it still OK to mock Italian culture every time a big Italian-themed movie releases? One must consider the gangster influence in American pop culture and the bravado of male characters such as The Godfather’s Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), along with bigger-than-life female performers like Sophia Loren or even Lady Gaga — the House of Gucci star who is indeed Italian-American and made her TV debut in The Sopranos season 3 episode “The Telltale Moozadell.” The spectacle of it all makes people lose their mind, it seems. My Italian-American great-grandmother — the late Philomena “Mamie” Vincent of Henderson, Nevada via Solofra and Avellino, Italy (the home of Tony Soprano’s ancestors) — would probably celebrate such proudly Italian movie and TV characters, but she would also acknowledge that olive-skinned immigrants like herself were mocked in hyperbolic American cartoons a century ago, presumably because they carried diseases to Ellis Island. While viewing Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God (È stata la mano di Dio) — a 2021 Netflix film — I thought of Grandma Mamie and what I learned about Neapolitan cultural nuances while investigating her early life during trips to Naples, Italy (and the surrounding Campania region) in 2009 and 2012.
The Hand of God begins with a sprawling aerial shot of Naples, a visual that made me chuckle upon a first viewing because of past conversations about the city. A decade ago, several family members — and even friends from Northern Italy — urged me to stay away from Naples because of the crime and all the Camorra members waiting to kill me. But I rejected such nonsense because there’s something purely magical about the city’s beautiful chaos; as the saying goes, if you can’t handle Rome, then don’t go south. In 2012, when I decided to work on an organic farm on the island of Ischia, a skeptical cousin informed me that I had made the “wrong” decision, and yet I ended up having one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. So, when Sorrentino’s camera pans over Naples to Ischia during The Hand of God’s opening scene, the city-to-island visual encapsulates so much from my perspective: the Napoli energy, the calmness of the sea, the spiritual aura of the surrounding islands, a sense of a higher power watching over the people. In The Hand of God, Sorrentino pays homage to Italian cinematic maestros by channelling the escapist element of Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and the magical realism of Federico Fellini films like La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963). Set in 1980s Naples, the storyline follows teenager Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti) as he attempts to overcome numerous familial and community obstacles while pursuing his dream of becoming a filmmaker.
The Hand of God feels like a companion piece to Sorrentino’s outstanding 2015 film Youth, a story about two elderly men who discuss their life experiences while vacationing at a Swiss Alps resort. Both productions explore themes of female madness and how alluring women affect the closest men in their lives; a concept that is comedically explored in Vittorio De Sica’s early 60s dramedies such as Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963) and Marriage Italian Style (1964). In Youth, Sorrentino uses female madness as a means for Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) to appreciate the present; in The Hand of God, the filmmaker builds upon Youth’s psychological concepts by incorporating more sexuality. For example, Fabietto’s aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri) sunbathes nude during a group boat trip, which at once confuses the teenage protagonist while informing him about the realities of the bigger picture. Aunt Patrizia’s behavior may seem bizarre, but it allows her to feel like a woman after suffering a miscarriage because of repeated physical abuse. She doesn’t lead Fabietto down the wrong path, but rather helps him prepare for the future, in terms of his decision-making and treatment of women. In fact, the boy doesn’t lose his virginity to an immature Neapolitan girl but instead to his elderly neighbor, Baronessa Focale (Betti Pedrazzi), who understands that Fabietto needs sexual guidance during a crucial moment in his life. The American moviegoer who refuses to acknowledge the nuances of Italian culture, specifically in Naples, will likely scoff at Aunt Patrizia and Baronessa Focale’s behavior; however, Sorrentino handles such female stories gracefully by giving the Neapolitan women agency — there’s true meaning behind their decisions; they aren’t merely objects of pleasure from Fabietto’s point of view.
The Hand of God’s Diego Maradona subplot is specific to Neapolitan culture. The late Argentine soccer player and former S.S.C. Napoli star plays a minor role in Youth, but Sorrentino expands upon the athlete’s legacy in the 2021 Netflix film. During my two trips to Naples, I spotted candlelight vigils for Maradona across the city and even in some homes. In The Hand of God, his impact on Napoli is reflected via the collective male protagonists, and most specifically through Fabietto’s uncle Alfredo (Renato Carpentieri), who states that he will kill himself if Maradona doesn’t leave Barcelona for Naples. When the unthinkable does indeed happen — when the soccer star actually chooses to live in the beautiful chaos of Napoli — Fabietto and company experience such joy that it’s almost enough for them to forget about everything else, which doesn’t go unnoticed by the teenage protagonist’s mother, Maria (Teresa Saponangelo). And even though Maria has plenty of issues to resolve with her husband, Saverio (Toni Servillo), she understands the importance of letting the men in her life have their moment. (Personal Note: Upon returning from Italy in 2012, a family member noticed a candlelight vigil in my apartment and seemingly believed that I had a religious experience in Naples, when in fact said vigil was just a spiritual reminder of the city and all the Maradona set-ups.) With The Hand of God, Sorrentino locks into the chaotic high/low energy of Neapolitan locals — up, down, up, down, reset. They approach life much differently than Northern Italians, a cultural concept that’s acknowledged through a prank scene involving Maria and a family friend who mistakenly believes that she’s been cast as the lead in a Franco Zeffirelli film.
In The Hand of God, music and movies play such a huge role in Fabietto’s development, but neither of the art forms are prominently featured via character dialogue; an interesting thematic touch from Sorrentino in comparison to the conversational loudness of The Great Beauty (2013). Fabietto constantly wears headphones in The Hand of God; however’s it’s never clear what he’s listening to. In addition, the young protagonist admits that he has only seen four films (!), but those cinematic experiences were so profound that they inspired him to consider a career in moviemaking. Like Aunt Patrizia, Fabietto will listen to suggestions and criticism but doesn’t fall apart emotionally because of a mere disagreement. Once Sorrentino finally reveals the boy’s musical interests during the climax, it’s a telling and profoundly moving soundtrack moment.
When I think about Naples and world cinema in general, I imagine the concept of “better things,” much like Fabietto. It’s disheartening whenever I hear or see alleged cinephiles or travel enthusiasts making reductive statements about Italian culture and/or Neapolitan life. Should one climb to the top of Mount Vesuvius when it’s about to erupt? No, but it’s worth making the trip on a sunny day after doing some research. To me, The Hand of God feels like a truly authentic depiction of Naples, if only on a spiritual level. I know how the city makes me feel; I revisit past experiences in my mind’s eye. And when I return to Napoli — the House of Sorrentino — I will my mind my manners and think of Grandma Mamie’s last wave goodbye.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor and chief film critic.