An amorphous saga about the slings and arrows of satire, splendor, sports and sorrow, writer-director Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God amounts to scattershot abstraction in search of a tangible anything. Despite infrequently inspired individual moments, surreality and sincerity don’t play well with each other in the latest from the Oscar-winning Italian filmmaker, opening Friday at Landmark’s Keystone Arts Cinema and debuting Wednesday, Dec. 15 on Netflix.
At times, The Hand of God resembles a John Irving novel with all the feeling sucked out of it. Or, with its gallery of grotesquely persistent bullies and busybodies, Frena il tuo Entusiasmo, with Larry David-esque cringe comedy heavy on the former and light on the latter. Unlike David’s regular, and often culturally specific, comeuppances, it’s not always clear what’s being skewered, punished or interrogated here. Some incidental speedboat-smuggler content makes the final third feel a bit like Napoli Vice. There’s even some Federico Fellini cosplay in the form of a sequence where extras audition for the Italian master’s latest work dressed in predictably colorful garb. Like 8 ½, The Hand of God is meant to reflect semi-autobiography, with teenaged Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti) as Sorrentino’s proxy. But the point for this portrait of the artist as a young man proves elusive across an enervating 130 minutes.
The title references the infamous FIFA World Cup goal from Argentine football superstar Diego Maradona against the United Kingdom — illegally but inconclusively assisted by Maradona’s hand and connotatively co-opted by footie fans and political wonks as a punishment for the Falklands War. Of course, the title also conjures the narrative construct of deus ex machina. Both the trope and the treasured athlete factor into Sorrentino’s film, the latter with his bank-breaking mid-’80s move to the Napoli club.
Maradona’s miraculous arrival in Naples dovetails with mounting misfortune amid the Schisa family — a series of infidelities and indignities ranging from infertility and domestic abuse to untimely death. The Schisas are, in less physically intimidating ways, an Italian clan of O’Doyles, odious people for whom there is a strong feeling that their whole family is going down. From picking apart the physical well-being of a new boyfriend in the family to giving homely neighbors a false hope of fame, the point of the Schisas’ social putrescence is made early and all too often. When things turn serious, well, you’ll be surprised to not see someone pop around the corner a la Arrested Development’s Gene Parmesan with a big smile on their face, and it ruins any emotional engagement for which Sorrentino aspires.
Through it all, the blank-slate Fabio tries to fumble his way toward adulthood and all that it sexually, professionally and emotionally entails. Sometimes, it’s an unremarked-upon ugly male gaze at his often-nude and often-abused aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri). Near the end, it’s an unexpected and unfiltered mentorship conversation with a brusque Italian director named Capuano (Ciro Capano). Although handsomely filmed per Sorrentino’s hallmark, The Hand of God remains piggishly inscrutable — aside from a humbling honesty that grief essentially constitutes forgetting about the dead enough to where they are not a persistent presence in your mind. Perhaps those who hold a deeper familiarity or affinity for Italian religious folklore will find deeper parables with its prologue and recurring imagery regarding San Gennaro and the Little Monk. But the relationship between these figures and Sorrentino’s film is neither established for those who come in cold nor intriguing enough to inspire connect-the-dots homework. In all, you’ll find yourself much rather watching the cassette of Once Upon a Time in America that gathers dust atop the Schisas’ VCR.