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'The Hand of God' explores the duality of the beautiful and the hideous

As The Hand of God begins, a woman stands by a street in Naples when a fancy car rolls up, the window rolls down, and a striking man tells her he knows her name and also that she’s been struggling to have children. The man claims to be San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples who died in the 4th century, and he says if she comes with him he will cure her troubles. She accepts, partly because he knows more about her intimate details than any person could know, but even more so because there’s something thoroughly bewitching about him. He takes her to a secluded location where they meet The Little Monk, another figure from Neapolitan religious folklore, and San Gennaro tells her to lean down and kiss The Little Monk’s head. She does, and at that moment, the saint grabs her rear end, telling her now the ritual is complete and she and her husband will be able to conceive.

Italian director Paolo Sorrentino has long seemed fascinated by the relationship between the divine and the vulgar: how they oppose each other, how they work together, and how sometimes they can’t be separated. He’s probably best known to American audiences for his HBO series The Young Pope and The New Pope, although he won an Oscar for his ravishing 2013 film The Great Beauty. And his interest in both the beauty of beauty and the beauty of ugliness has led to some grand, lavish movies—not necessarily work that would have made me expect the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story in The Hand of God. And though Sorrentino’s style is very much still there, he also wears the quieter intimacy well.

On the surface at least, the phrase, “The Hand of God,” refers to that famous illegal goal scored by Diego Maradona in the 1986 World Cup. As the movie picks up, Naples is buzzing with the rumor that Maradona may be coming to play for the city’s team. One of those most excited is the teenaged Fabietto, the fictionalized Paolo Sorrentino, who lives with his large family and all their enormous quirks. It’s an enhanced version of what we imagine a huge, weird Italian family to be, although given who Sorrentino is as a filmmaker, it could very well be true to life. The family is noisy, and feisty, and prickly, and warm, and in true Sorrentino fashion, you may find yourself laughing at a few things you feel ashamed for laughing at.

Both autobiographical stories and coming-of-age tales can often be a little shaggy, and we get that here. There’s not so much a specific plot as there is a series of events that shape who Fabietto will become. But so much of it is clearly so personal to Sorrentino—there’s an emotional center to this that I’ve never felt from the other films of his I’ve seen. It’s not surprising this would happen with this kind of story, but it’s also not just a result of how we see Fabietto. Sorrentino also displays Naples in all its glory and grunge—it’s where he grew up, and he very much seems to have the same sort of complicated relationship with it that many of us do with our hometowns. And throughout the movie, he continues to explore the duality of the sacred and the profane, of the beautiful and the hideous, occasionally even knocking us flat on our backs emotionally. There’s one deeply tender scene that’s recontextualized a short time later into something utterly heartbreaking, and it’s a feeling I still haven’t quite shaken.

As with essentially everything I’ve seen from Sorrentino, in The Hand of God there are times he just goes a bit too far and what he shows us feels overly calculated and forced. But, then, if he weren’t pushing the boundaries, we wouldn’t have those other moments of exquisite beauty. One can’t exist without the other. Paolo Sorrentino’s weakness and strengths are often the same thing. But how could it be any other way?

The Hand of God is on Netflix beginning December 3rd.

An earlier version of this review misidentified the main character, Fabietto, as "Filippo." Fabietto is played by Filippo Scotti.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.