Watching Hand Of God, Paolo Sorrentino’s gorgeous coming-of-age tale set in 80s Naples, there was one nugget of half-remembered trivia that I couldn’t stop thinking about: that in the French version of Looney Tunes, Pepe Le Pew was Italian. Yes, Hand Of God is gorgeous, heartfelt, and maybe a tad unfocused, but most of all it’s horny. Undeniably, hilariously horny. It’s also much more enjoyable if you watch it imagining that this meditative, semi-autobiographical period piece was written by a horny skunk in a French cartoon.
In the first scene, a woman with very large breasts and prominent nipples (I can virtually guarantee that this will be the first thing you notice about this scene) in a thin white dress waits for the bus in the rain. A fancy car pulls up, and the man in the back introduces himself as “San Gennaro.” If you’ve heard of “The Feast of San Gennaro,” he means that San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples, martyred in 305 AD (either the Roman bears refused to eat him or the fire wouldn’t consume him, depending on which version of the legend you prefer). This mystery man whisks the big-breasted lady off to a crumbling villa somewhere, where she meets a smurf-like man in monk’s robes — the Little Monk! Another figure of Naples myth, their sort of benevolent leprechaun, or chupacabra.
Together they tell the woman, Patrizia, played by Luisa Ranieri, that she’ll finally be able to have that baby she’s been wanting. Yet when she finally makes it home, sopping wet and looking like she just won a wet t-shirt contest, and tries to tell her husband the good news, about her now-fecund womb rejuvenated by a third-century martyr and a mythical tiny monk, he calls her a whore and beats her up.
Now, “what does any of this have to do with Diego Maradona?” you might rightfully ask. “Hand of God” was of course the Argentinian soccer superstar’s memorable explanation of how he scored the “header” against England in a World Cup match that replays showed actually bounced off Maradona’s right fist. Sorrentino uses this famous incident both as a backdrop and as a metaphor, in an attempt to show the divine providence at work in what seems to be his own life story. Which is set during the period when Maradona came to Naples and restored the city’s pride. (For brief cultural analysis, simply recall the words of famous Napolitan Furio on the Sopranos: “In Napoli, lot of people are not so happy for Columbus. He was from Genoa. North of Italy always have the money and-a the power. They punish the South for years. Even today, they put-a they noses up at us like, we are peasants. I hate the north.”)
Sorrentino’s presumed stand-in is Fabietto (Filippo Scotti), a shy kid with a mop of curls who aspires to one day be a filmmaker. Fabietto has a fractious but loving family, including a generous older brother (Marchino, played by Marlon Joubert, two good-natured parents (Toni Servillo and Teresa Saponangela) and a sister we never see thanks to a running joke about her always being in the bathroom. Women-a, they be-a shoppin, non?
The boob lady from the magical realist first scene, meanwhile, turns out to be Fabietto’s aunt, who may indeed be a little crazy, but on the plus side enjoys sunbathing completely nude in full view of the entire family from time to time. Probably the entirety of Hand Of God can be boiled down into just one exchange, between Machino and Fabietto in the aftermath of Aunt Patrizia’s sunbathing:
“If you had to choose,” Marchino asks Fabietto, “between Maradona coming to Napoli, and screwing aunt Patrizia, which would it be?”
Ah yes, those two things of which every adolescent boy dreams, the best sports star in the world coming to play for your favorite team and plowing your own aunt. Talk about a Sophie’s Choice!
Hand of God is a charming, frequently funny coming-of-age tale shot so exquisitely that it would make any Italian-American angry at his ancestors. (Damn it, grandpa, You chose to leave this?!) Sorrentino’s Napoli is unrelentingly gorgeous. Yet as the first scene featuring visions of San Gennaro and the Little Monk might indicate, something about Hand Of God is lost in translation, or maybe just lost in grandiosity. Did the patron saint of Napoli visit your voluptuous aunt so that you could one day become a filmmaker?
There are many great moments in Hand of God, but like his English language works Youth and Young Pope, they’re occasionally adrift in a sea of Sorrentino’s style of symbolic excess. Fabietto eventually befriends a petty criminal, goes to a few soccer games, meets even more big-breasted ladies, realizes he wants to make movies, and stalks a few famous local filmmakers. Including one who tells him to stop being so bashful. “If you don’t have courage, you can’t sleep with beautiful women.” This may be a famous Italian proverb, I’m not sure.
Yet Sorrentino has a tendency to waste screen time on these grandly symbolic moments when he could be telling us something about his protagonist, who even in 130 minutes of movie remains a little remote. I mean, sure, he dreams of making movies, loves sports, and fantasizes about committing incest/adultery on his own aunt, but that could be anyone, right, guys?