MA 15+, 130 minutes

4 Stars


Review by © Jane Freebury

How absurd life looks through the eyes of an adolescent. Weird, grotesque, enticing, deadly. If only that first step was a little easier to take. Now soccer, on the other hand, when the ball is played by the masters, has the grace and elegance of perfection.

What troubles the young man growing up in this new film by Paolo Sorrentino, whose fine work includes Il Divo and The Great Beauty, is not really clear. Yet it need not be. He’s a teenager.

Fabietto (Filippo Scotti) is the narrator and observer, shrinking into his own world, blocking others out with his headphones, impassive compared to the colourful characters around him. He’s growing up in a comfortable middle-class home in the hills above the port in Naples, with his loving parents, and a brother and a sister. The Schisa family seem like a regular unit, and a lot less weird that some of the rest of the family and friends they keep company with.

once upon a time in Napoli, a filmmaker’s beautifully composed, sweet coming-of-age story

Fabietto’s gorgeous aunt, Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), appears in early scenes bra-less under a light white dress, explicitly sexualized. She is desperate to have children, endures a jealous and abusive husband and has needs that drive her to do strange things.  We might think we know where things are going for her and Fabietto from the start, but a number of expectations are upended along the way.

Fabietto’s older brother, Marchina (Marlon Joubert), has already moved through the awkward stage, though he is still living at home, where the brothers share a room. Their sister, Daniela (Rossella Di Lucca), is always occupying the bathroom, the one that is shared by the entire family. This is a standing joke in other households too.

Fabietto and Marchina probably couldn’t want for more from their parents, Maria (Teresa Saponangelo) and Saverio (Toni Servillo), whose marriage appears to be happy and contented. Until it isn’t. But the wider circle of family and friends is captured in learing camera close-up and unflattering angles that suggest how 17-year-old schoolboy sees them.

The perspective is his, the story is his and The Hand of God is writer-director Sorrentino’s own coming-of-age story, that also took place in Naples in the second half of the 1980s.

It was a magical time for the city. Diego Maradona had come to play for Napoli and the beautiful game was in the realm of the celestial. Every soccer fan knows all about the star player’s ‘hand of god’, but in this film narrative the words acquire a meaning all their own when Fabietto’s life turns upside down, from happy to sad.

 unfolding under the influence of Maradona, Fellini and the sea

The Hand of God is just as much a family portrait as it is a portrait of the grand, decadent and beautiful southern Italian city it is set in. I can see online that many films have been set in Naples, and from location shots from a helicopter that is tracking smuggler boats as they head into port, to the sweeping views from Sorrento Peninsula, it is easy to see why.

The cinematographer, Daria D’Antonio, has captured a glorious port city, built on ancient foundations, located on a wild and dangerous coast. The striking beauty of the natural landscapes contrasts with urban scenes of a highly stylised and seductive city, a place where crime lives alongside privilege.

And yet, the world of cinema is, as you would expect in this filmmaker’s coming-of-age drama, never far away. A VHS copy of Sergio Leone’s classic, Once Upon a Time in America, lies around the Schisa house, invitingly. Fabietto is fully aware that the Cinecitta Studios in Rome, the hub of Italian filmmaking, are just up the road.

When Federico Fellini comes to town to cast for extras for a new film, it’s funny to hear that Marchino is rejected because he is too conventional looking. The eccentric vision of semi-autobiographical classics from the 1970s, Roma and Amarcord may come to mind, though Sorrentino is much less prone to Fellini’s grand guignol.

Before the final scenes show how Fabietto has decided to move forward, he meets an abrasive film director who tells it to him straight. If you want to make movies, you have to have something to say, and stick with it. Thirty years on, it seems Sorrentino is passing on the same advice.

First published in the Canberra Times on 18 December 2021. Jane’s reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes