Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s latest movie pulls back the curtain on the sources of his voluptuous visuals and idiosyncratic characters. The Hand of God, which is out on Netflix, revisits and reimagines elements from Sorrentino’s formative years in Naples.

The title hints at the framing event – the arrival of Diego Maradona as the star player of the Naples football team. One of Maradona’s most infamous goals, scored during a match between his native Argentina and England during the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico City, hints at the interplay between miracles and human intervention that guide the teenaged Fabietto’s journey.

One of three children of loving parents, Fabietto (Fillippo Scotti) is drifting along on the fumes of aimless adolescence. His extended family members evoke the grotesquerie of Federico Fellini’s cinema and the carnality and cruelty of Sorrentino’s own later works. These include a matriarch who wears a fur coat in the summer and a troubled exhibitionist aunt.

The Hand of God (2021). Courtesy Netflix.

Fabietto’s brother Alfredo (Marlon Joubert) is hoping to be cast in a Fellini film. A more direct influence on Fabietto is the director Antonio Capuano, who delivers a rousing lecture on the unique ability of cinema to help filmmakers set down roots as well as transform and transport themselves. (Sorrentino was one of the writers on Capuano’s The Dust of Naples.)

The parade of people who luxuriate in their desires and dreams finally lets up after Fabietto faces a personal tragedy. The high-key emotions and flamboyant yet futile gestures give way to something quieter and richer – an adolescent trying to mine meaning from a staggering loss. When The Hand of God finally gets going, it yields discovery and truth for Fabietto, movingly depicted by Fillippo Scotti.

The cast includes Tony Servillo, who has appeared in some of Sorrentino’s most acclaimed films, including Il Divo and The Great Beauty. Servillo plays Fabietto’s father, whose love for his brood, especially his wife Maria (Teresa Saponangelo), falls short, like life itself. Luisa Raineri is Patrizia, the Malena of Fabietto’s imagination and a possible ur-muse for the women who pop up in Sorrentino’s films.

In a departure from Sorrentino’s previous works, The Hand of God has a visual beauty that does not come across as constructed or designed. Naples, which stuns whether in daytime or the night, is seductive but also too small to contain Fabietto’s ambitions. A short film that is also on Netflix, titled The Hand of God – Through the Eyes of Sorrentino, explores the locations that are featured in the movie.

The lustrous cinematography is complemented by the intimate sound design. From the sucking sound produced by the first draw of a cigarette to an imitation of a motorboat speeding on the Gulf of Naples’s waters, The Hand of God captures the ways in which memory is formed as much by what we hear as what we see.

Naples might be a sea of stories for Fabietto, but it’s only when he shuts his eyes and plugs headphones into his ears that his journey actually begins.

The Hand of God (2021).