An Artist's Coming of Age
The problem of cinematic rebirth is on artists’ minds in our times, and so the best cinema again focuses on art’s relation to beauty, religion, and community. This is the core of the one movie I can recommend from this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar category, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God, available on Netflix. It’s also the best movie I saw in 2021.
This is not entirely a surprise: Italy has long maintained a special importance in the American idea of cinema. This was true even before American artists like Scorsese, Coppola, De Palma and their favorite actors began to transform Hollywood in the 1970s with stories about Italians in America. Indeed, no foreign country has succeeded so well as Italy at the Oscars. In that tradition of Italian cinema, once more familiar to Americans, The Hand of God combines beautiful cinematography with keen social observation and deep reflection on the problem of nihilism.
Sorrentino is himself known to American audiences—his 2016 HBO series The Young Pope, a fairy tale about the rebirth of Catholicism through an American pope’s reactionary politics, was a big success. And his The Great Beauty won the Foreign Oscar in 2013, a movie usually introduced as a sequel to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, because it is a similar examination of Italian character and the corruption of art through celebrity. Audiences will have every chance of getting to know Sorrentino better, because The Hand of God is also his autobiography. You may take every event in the movie as true, which allows us to experience art without cynicism or the theoretical prejudices that inspire it.
Modern Art and the True Story
The Hand of God follows the pattern of the bildungsroman. It is especially attuned to the modern interest in adolescence; it follows the more recent interest in moody protagonists, who are passive rather than active and gloomy rather than brilliant. Perhaps we can say, the film presents characters moved by art rather than politics, to say nothing of war.
The first half shows the lives and families of ordinary middle-class people in Naples in the 1980s, focusing on the Schissa family and their relatives, neighbors, and friends. Seen through the eyes of the youngest son and protagonist Fabio, the story is quite comical and full of odd characters that are worth thinking about beyond the surprises and laughs they provoke. The festive mood is tied up with the enthusiasm overwhelming the city with the arrival of Maradona—soccer is the only thing approaching political loyalty binding people together.
The second half is sober, starting with Fabio losing his parents and, before turning 17, facing the question of what to make of himself. Sorrentino reveals his own orphanhood here to show what it meant to him to become an Italian artist. Yet, The Hand of God is neither narcissistic nor pretentious. The twentieth century inaugurated a silly habit of young people writing memoirs—self-obsession replaced concern with soul in literature and other fine arts. Sorrentino, born in 1970, is simply not that interested in himself, but rather in his people. He observes with delicacy and wit what Italy is like, especially the South, suggesting it, not the wealthy, industrial North is the true basis for Italian nationality.
Further, the movie beautifies Naples and its adolescent protagonist, heightening sensitivity, suggesting artistic reflection is a path to raising fundamental questions rather than flattering the audience or appealing to vanity. Beautiful images are important because they somehow organize, almost as in a schema, what in our ordinary lives draws us directly to the questions of human nature, the roots of faith and politics. Below I’ll give an example from the movie’s introductory scenes, which depict realities we now neglect to reveal the fundamental sources of our beliefs. We see this in our memories and our calling some people and events, but not all, memorable. Sorrentino goes further and insists on the experience rather than the protagonist, so that anyone watching can face up to this demand of art, thus sharing his artistic gifts with the audience. We don’t get an action hero who will achieve victories we can enjoy vicariously, but a confused boy who has to seek in his country, in a past he is barely coming to inherit, the beliefs necessary to orienting himself in life. Artistically, this means that experience rather than ideology or even dogmas has to make the world intelligible to us.
Artists and Religion
The Hand of God opens by introducing us to Naples, seen from the bay, then cuts to a baffling scene: It’s gridlock in the Piazza of the Plebiscite, a monument to nineteenth-century national unification. The city, suddenly rich after decades of post-War economic growth, is full of cars—the square in front of the neoclassical Basilica of St. Francis of Paola has become a vast parking lot. The national past and the national faith seem left behind by events, but still in plain sight. This inaugurates a series of contradictions intended to guide the viewer to understand why Italians—and perhaps modern people—are so confused.
So much for the setting—here’s the action: A beautiful woman stuck in the gridlock has an encounter which then receives three interpretations, once her family finds out. Her wealthy husband thinks she has prostituted herself and beats her; her middle-class sister thinks she’s crazy and wants to help her; her nephew Fabio believes her account. She says she saw San Gennaro (the ancient patron of the city) and the Little Monk, a folk character of importance especially to women who, like the lady in question, want to have children. The lady is mad, but the movie does not reject the possibility that she is somehow touched by something holy rather than being merely morally reprehensible. Italians have long recognized this figure as the Magdalen, a woman of great voluptuousness but also great penitence.
I should warn the audience that although it’s a movie about a teenager, The Hand of God is not meant for kids. It’s a European rather than an American movie—there is more than a little of the troubling and even the sordid in it, following from the artistic demand to give a complete picture of life. But for that reason also, there is a shameless concern with the beauty of the body which we cannot condone. Of course, America is different—our popular movies don’t have as much nudity, but we give the world internet pornography. Just as our political virtues are more impressive, our decadence is worse.
Sorrentino brings up the lady’s shame and uses the Maradona mania to show what world we actually live in. He’s trying to escape the arrogant, ignorant mediocrity of our critics. He wants to avoid flattering the people who used to be called “culture vultures,” who watch art movies the better to despise art. Sorrentino is not an innocent, of course. He is a very successful moviemaker in Europe, after all, but he does his best to escape the decadence of our times. That decadence is best understood as a combination of skepticism about everything noble, holy, or divine, and an unlimited superstition about what might be done to the human body in the name of liberation, frequently while claiming scientific justification.
Sorrentino offers, as an alternative to our elites, a beautified version of himself in Fabio—who believes both in his aunt’s religious vision and in the popular enthusiasm for Maradona. This personal and political naivety is the best starting place for understanding the human problem, he suggests, because our experience always begins from hopes and beliefs we inherit from our families and communities, and only by going through this experience do we begin to understand the aspirational and yet limited character of our longing for beauty and for justice. We may say that here he has already proved something important. Modern politics, which is based on Enlightenment, an attempt to solve the human problem through science, has failed, if people worship celebrities. To look down on the saints but ignore these astonishing popular passions doesn’t make our elites super-rationalists who follow the science—it merely proves they suffer from a peculiar form of insanity, turning blindness to beauty into an unwillingness to face reality, leading, through long habit, to psychopathy.
Sorrentino suggests sanity depends on being willing to face the ambiguity of what we find beautiful and so the Italian title literally says It Was The Hand Of God—we need to reexamine our ideas about miracles in art, myth, and religion. Art is not a replacement for scientific inquiry, but it does point out the limits of our knowledge. Through our passions, art reveals a natural, irrepressible longing for the divine which nevertheless strikes many as immoral nowadays. It comes out when we least expect it, partly because we have abandoned public rituals of faith.
Politics and Miracles
Sorrentino’s great actor, Toni Servillo, protagonist of The Great Beauty, here plays Fabio’s father with a warm charm, combining old age and boyish hilarity, a kind of cynicism about life with occasional tenderness to his loved ones. Like Naples, he’s a walking contradiction. A banker by trade, successful, too, he declares himself a communist, and therefore one who cannot believe in silly things like religion! He’s loving but not a great father or husband; he also has an affair that causes much suffering. His communism is super-Marxist, including apparently the redistribution of affection. Needless to say, this creates not a classless society, but much jealousy and humiliation.
The other communist in the family is an old uncle who states his disgust with everything in life, presumably because Italy turned capitalist. In another contradiction, he, too, is a devoted fan and tells Fabio he’ll kill himself if Maradona doesn’t come to Napoli, presumably one last political gesture for a man who must have once been quite passionate. When the uncle learns Fabio survived the accident that killed his parents because he was at a Naples soccer game, he says: “It was the hand of God,” in reference to the popular name for the infamous goal scored by Maradona with his hand at the 1986 World Cup. Maradona, like Jesus, saves!
The rest of the movie is a reflection on that saving moment: was it a miracle or not, and if so, what does that mean? Leaving aside the facile cynicism called Communism in Italy, which takes its pride from going against old hierarchies and superstitions, Sorrentino shows the middle-class boy Fabio turn from soccer to art, eventually finding a mentor, Capuano, the director who helped Sorrentino become an artist.
Maradona’s coming to Naples was a miracle in the sense that it brought hope and victory, making people feel like a city again. This seems easier to understand than Fabio’s private trouble. The people didn’t believe they deserved a better life, or anything to be proud of—success came as a surprise, first a rumor then a belief, easily mocked yet impossible to stifle. Finally, it became a reality overwhelming ordinary life at times. It’s human nature, but especially obvious in Italy, to be so fickle and yet in a way beautiful, to want to do well and yet to be in need of leaders, and not to lose hope in decadence.
Unlike Naples, Fabio is not grateful his life was saved: He feels guilty, as though he had abandoned his parents. We blame ourselves for our suffering, yet we no longer know how to grieve. Fabio is also an artist in the making, and so his very sensitivity makes him inadequate to the moment of death and the funeral ceremony: he is used to observing rather than doing. He cries at the wrong moments. With childhood’s assurance of protection gone, he is unsure that life is good. His ascent to artistic vision is only beginning and the advice he receives when he is most vulnerable is that he needs to find in himself courage and perseverance. He also finds out for himself that he needs faith if he is to have the hope and gratitude that sustains great art.
Sorrentino has made a movie likely to inspire many young men. He has beautified suffering and, thus, shown what it means to need a miracle—this protagonist of his finds his life is over before it begins; that the love in which he was born and raised has been denied him before he can even think of himself as a man on his own feet; and instead of feeling uprooted, wilting, fated, he discovers life in a wealth of inspiration and a faith in speaking artistically to his people. The story shows why all decent people are potentially believers. He has returned artistry to the mysterious unity of our being, the soul. He shows that what is often denigrated as superstition is an uneducated guess at something holy that we cannot escape; that what is often praised as Progress is a superstition that won’t as easily be controlled, and which would kill art, since it makes it impossible to examine ordinary life and test our beliefs. I recommend it to all who are serious about art and faith.