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The Hand of God – Paolo Sorrentino14
Courtesy of Netflix

Paolo Sorrentino on the family tragedy that shaped his career

The Hand of God is the Italian filmmaker’s tribute to football legend Diego Maradona and 1980s Naples, imbued with his own deeply personal experiences: ‘to see Maradona... was my first contact with art’

In Paolo Sorrentino’s comedy Youth, a retired footballer, clearly modelled on Diego Maradona, overhears a conversation between Michael Caine and Paul Dano. Caine claims that left-handed people are irregular, to which the overweight man notes that he, too, is left-handed. In response, Dano retorts, “Christ, the whole world knows you’re left-handed!”

While the Maradona doppelganger is simply named South American Man in Youth’s end credits, Sorrentino has long been vocal about his admiration for the Argentine football legend. When The Great Beauty won Best International Film at the 2014 Oscars, Sorrentino thanked Maradona in his acceptance speech. In Sorrentino’s TV series The Young Pope, Vatican staff observe archival footage of the striker with religious reverence. But it’s Sorrentino’s new coming-of-age heartbreaker, The Hand of God, that details how, in the Italian filmmaker’s own words, his life was saved by Maradona.

As a 16-year-old, Sorrentino was supposed to join his parents at a holiday getaway pad in the mountains; instead, the then-teenager, a football fanatic, remained at home to watch Maradona compete at his local stadium. That weekend, Sorrentino’s father and mother died from an accidental carbon monoxide leak, a fate that would have befell Sorrentino if he weren't a season ticket holder at Napoli.

Before I meet Sorrentino at Corinthia Hotel, I’m informed that the 51-year-old director usually smokes during interviews; instead, he asks me, through an interpreter, if it’s OK if he can draw during our chat. He opens a sketchbook, takes out a handful of charcoal pencils, and immediately draws two eyeballs on the paper, smudging the eyelashes for artistic effect. Is he using his London Film Festival junket to dream up images for Mob Girl? “It’s just a face,” he responds, with a grin.

At the start of 2020, Sorrentino was preparing to shoot an English-language miniseries in Los Angeles, and was, if rumours are to be believed, also ready to direct Jennifer Lawrence in a crime-drama, Mob Girl. During lockdown, though, he turned introspective. “The pandemic allowed me to dedicate time to ponder calmly on my past. Without the daily interruptions, I was able to focus.”

When The Hand of God was announced in July 2020, Maradona’s agent threatened a lawsuit, mistakenly believing that Sorrentino was directing an unauthorised biopic. The Hand of God is indeed a sort of biopic, but it’s Sorrentino’s story, not Maradona’s. Fabietto (Filippo Scotti) is a pensive teen who becomes an orphan at 16 and, overwhelmed with grief, aspires to direct movies. However, to Sorrentino’s dismay, Maradona died in November 2020, so was unable to watch The Hand of God. “I don’t know if Maradona saw Youth,” Sorrentino says. “But when I mentioned him in my Oscar speech, he sent me a signed Argentina shirt, with ‘To Paolo’ on it.”

On Instagram, Sorrentino regularly posts about Napoli (including the time he met Maurizio Sarri), and his debut film, One Man Up, also shot in Naples, starred Toni Servillo as a famed footballer. “I grew up in a family where there were not many books, and we didn’t see many movies,” the director explains. “For me, to go to a stadium to see Maradona, to see football matches, it was my first contact with art. To me, sport is something very close to art.”

The Hand of God represents both new and familiar territory for Sorrentino. Across the director’s previous projects, he’s primarily focused on men of a certain age, usually played by Servillo. Still, the Italian auteur’s aesthetic is famed for a raucous teenage energy: the swooping, gravity-defying camera shots; the pulsating, ostentatious party extravaganzas; the restlessness with which his characters, however old they are, are bursting for something new, something greater.

“I believe there has to be an age difference between a filmmaker and a protagonist,” he says. “When I was young, I thought it was more proper for me to tell stories about older people. Now that I’m getting old, I can have younger protagonists.”

For the first half, the film plays like Fellini’s Amarcord, juxtaposing bawdy humour with tender observations on family life. The larger-than-life relatives (juggling oranges, nude sunbathing, etcetera) are viewed through the eyes of Fabietto, who, in the early stages, is shy and awkward, always carrying headphones around his neck. Fabietto’s parents, played by Servillo and Teresa Saponangelo, warmly receive their own separate scenes, playing pranks on each other in their son’s absence. Meanwhile, Fabietto’s brother auditions for a Fellini movie, an incident Sorrentino says happened in real life.

“I grew up in a family where there were not many books, and we didn’t see many movies. For me, to go to a stadium to see Maradona, to see football matches, it was my first contact with art” – Paolo Sorrentino 

All in all, Sorrentino illustrates a vivid, sensual portrait of his childhood memories, the kind you imagine a filmmaker could only execute once in their career. However, Sorrentino also referred to 2011’s This Must Be the Place upon its release as a movie about his adolescence. “They share a few points,” Sorrentino says, “because the character (based on The Cure’s Robert Smith) played by Sean Penn has the same slow pace as Fabietto.”

The comparison Sorrentino is less open to is the facial similarities between Scotti and another curly-haired heartthrob, Timothée Chalamet. At its Venice premiere, the New York Times’ Kyle Buchanan tweeted, “It also cannot be understated how much the lead in Sorrentino’s The Hand of God is serving Timoteo Chalamezzo.” When I bring up Chalamet’s name, not mentioning any film in particular, the director instantly responds, “I hadn’t thought about it, because I’ve never seen Call Me By Your Name. It couldn’t be on my mind.”

Scotti’s showstopping scene – the one that will inevitably be used in clips for awards season – is when Fabietto reaches the hospital, having been informed of his parents’ carbon monoxide poisoning. The doctor refuses to allow Fabietto to witness their bodies, believing it will scar him for life. The 16-year-old boy, up to now an introvert, suddenly explodes in rage, aggressively slamming tables and doors around the reception area and demanding to see his dead parents.

“It’s very similar to what happened in my life,” Sorrentino says. “Me and Filipo didn’t speak a lot before that scene. I just said he had the opportunity to do a big, great scene that every actor would dream to play. I think that motivated him, saying these simple things.” Fabietto later claims that his fury from this incident will fuel his filmmaking ambitions. Was that true for Sorrentino? “I’m not good at psychoanalysing my films and my profession. But undoubtedly, pain and suffering and rage are stimuli to do things.”

In previous storylines, Sorrentino has indirectly reflected on his grief. Jude Law’s Lenny in The Young Pope lost his parents at an early age; in Loro, a sheep dies from faulty air conditioning. Are all his stories fundamentally about death? “Yes,” he says. “I couldn’t make a film without touching on such an important issue. For human conditions, there are five issues that are key, and death is one of them.” What are the others? “Family, eroticism, happiness, and loneliness.”

At other instances, Sorrentino avoids answering my questions, cheerfully claiming I’m overthinking the film. For instance, I ask if the COVID situation – everyone becoming conscious of the air we breathe – was what motivated him to revisit his parents’ carbon monoxide poisoning. “Too deep for me,” he laughs, in English, not using his interpreter. I note that Youth, The Consequences of Love, and The Great Beauty are about old men who worry that they’ve wasted their careers, and ask if it’s why he’s so prolific as a director. He stops drawing to think about how to answer. “I’m not as deep as my characters are. I make films because I’m having fun, and because I’m not such a good painter as to make a living through painting.”

“I’m not good at psychoanalysing my films and my profession. But undoubtedly, pain and suffering and rage are stimuli to do things” – Paolo Sorrentino 

What Sorrentino is more willing to discuss is his new collaborators. Luca Bigazzi was Sorrentino’s cinematographer for his last seven films, as well as both series of The Young Pope. On The Hand of God, though, the DoP is Daria D'Antonio.

“I wanted a cinematographer from Naples,” Sorrentino explains. “She’s Neapolitan. I’ve known her for a long time, and thought she had the right sensitivity to make a delicate film. I wanted the photography to reflect the mood of the characters, whether it’s joy or pain. I wanted to show the city I grew up in, and therefore the places that I’m familiar with.

“Also, I thought it was time to change some elements of my crew. After 20 years of working with the same people, I changed not only my cinematographer but also the art director, the costume designer, and producers as well.”

As for whether Sorrentino would do a sequel to The Hand of God, much like Truffaut followed up The 400 Blows with Stolen Kisses, the director claims he hadn’t considered it before my question. “Not now. Maybe in 20 years.” While Sorrentino teases that he has an idea for a third series of The Young Pope (the second batch was retitled The New Pope), he adds, “It’s not among my priorities right now.”

While Sorrentino declines to name those priorities, it’s likely that two of them will star Jennifer Lawrence. Along with their plans for Mob Girl, Sorrentino and Lawrence are collaborating on a biopic of the Hollywood agent Sue Mengers, a project that, according to rumours, is at the centre of a bidding war – Apple have supposedly offered $80 million.

Of course, Sorrentino can’t comment on any of this, and also denies that the face he’s drawing is Lawrence’s – 25 minutes into our interview, his detailed sketch is evidently of a woman. So I ask him what’s exciting about hypothetically working with J-Law, whether or not the imaginary film involves a young woman of the mob-variety? “I believe that she’s amongst the greatest actresses alive nowadays,” Sorrentino says. “We had the opportunity to talk a lot and see each other a few times. There is a mutual liking and esteem. We wish to work together.”

Whatever Sorrentino is shooting next, it will have to be scheduled around awards season, during which, if the director wins anything, he could repeat what he said at the 2014 Oscars ceremony. On reflection, Sorrentino’s acceptance speech for The Great Beauty reads completely differently after viewing The Hand of God. With an Oscar in hand, on TV, Sorrentino named four sources of inspiration: Federico Fellini, Talking Heads, Martin Scorsese, and Maradona. Before walking off the stage, he added, without explaining the significance, “This is for my parents.” It’s not inconceivable that a similar speech will be read out in 2022 – it’s Italy’s Oscar submission and a dead-cert for at least a nomination.

But if Sorrentino does have a speech planned, I imagine it’ll involve his answer to when I ask about the worshipping of football in The Young Pope. In the HBO series, Napoli is treated as an alternative to Christianity. “We had the habit in Naples to mix the sacred and the profane,” Sorrentino says. “So, yes, for the Neapolitans, Maradona was a god. There was a mix between the two things.” Is it because we all need something irrational to believe in? “We need to dream of a better life. Maradona and religion offer a better life.”

The Hand of God is playing in select cinemas now, and can be streamed on Netflix from December 15