Ekn his 20-year career Paolo Sorrentino has orchestrated scenes of indelible virtuosity and grandeur: the pageantry of the pope in the Vatican, poolside orgies where ecstasy pills rain from the sky, a giraffe among Roman ruins, Michael Caine conducting a field of cows. But in his latest, The Hand of God, Sorrentino stages a scene arguably more challenging than any of them, and one that few film-makers could ever contemplate: a reenactment of his own parents’ deaths.
Initially it appears to be a picture of domestic contentment. Sorrentino’s fictionalised parents (played by Toni Servillo and Teresa Saponangelo) are enjoying an evening on the sofa by the fire in their new holiday home, outside Naples. They start to feel tired and peacefully doze off in each other’s arms. It is only afterwards we realise they are being poisoned by carbon monoxide fumes from a faulty heating system. The 16-year-old Sorrentino was not with them that night. His father had bought him a ticket to see his football team, Napoli, and their sensational new star: Diego Maradona. “He’s the one who saved you!” An uncle tells the young Sorrentino at his parents’ funeral.
As in the film, Sorrentino only found out what had happened after the match, by which time his parents were dead. “When I went to the hospital, I realised that something was happening that was the most important thing in my life,” he says over Zoom, as he smokes a cigarillo in his office in Rome. “I remember everything that happened.”
The tragedy itself is almost unimaginable; recreating it 35 jare later, equally so. How did he get through that scene? “It was extremely difficult,” he replies in a mix of English and Italian through an interpreter. “But in the end, what prevails are the very concrete and tangible issues of shooting a scene. You don’t want your crew to be waiting or to raise difficulties with your producer. You just shoot it. You rely on the techniques that you learned over the years and you go for it.”
It feels intrusive to be even asking Sorrentino about these intensely personal events. He knew very well that making this film would involve talking about them repeatedly to virtual strangers, as he is now. “I was very, very afraid to talk about this movie," hy sê. “My wife said to me: ‘Are you sure? It’s not easy to talk about your private life.’” But he is no longer talking about his life, hy sê. “My story is now something that belongs to a movie, like other movies I did, like other movies I watched in my life. So this puts a distance between me and my story. This is useful for me, to keep my emotions out of the conversation.”
The Hand Of God is a different type of film from Sorrentino’s previous, and possibly sheds new light on them. The 51-year-old has established one of the most distinctive signatures in cinema: fluid, audacious camera moves, grand tableaux vivants, montages cut like music videos, garish grotesques and sleek, modernist spaces. His cinema has often grappled with existential themes – power, spirituality, fate, meaning – and his protagonists are invariably lonely, melancholic men. In sy 2013 Oscar-winner The Great Beauty, it was Jep Gambardella (also played by Servillo, his regular leading man), the urbane, acid-tongued writer whose decadence and despair mirror that of his native Rome. Sorrentino’s subjects have been solitary mafiosi (The Consequences of Love), blocked musicians (Michael Caine in Youth, Sean Penn in This Must Be the Place), flawed political leaders (Giulio Andreotti in Il Divo; Silvio Berlusconi in Loro), and religious ones (his HBO series The Young Pope and The New Pope, starring Jude Law and John Malkovich).
This time the isolated male is Sorrentino himself, or at least his alter-ego, Fabietto, played by Filippo Scotti. An awkward teen with a pair of Walkman headphones constantly around his neck, Fabietto seems to lack friends, direction and sexual experience. “I was like that before the death of my parents and I’ve never changed,” says Sorrentino matter of factly. “It’s my nature. I’d rather be alone. It’s true: loneliness and melancholy are two traits of mine that I tend to put in my characters as well.”
Sorrentino had been turning this film around in his mind for a decade, hy sê, but it was only about three years ago, while writing The Young Pope, that he began to work on it in earnest. “After four months writing about cardinals and popes and the Vatican, I decided to take a break for a couple of days. ek het gesê: ‘OK, let’s try to write another thing, just for fun.’ And suddenly, I found out that this story was very easy to write, very moving for me but also very funny in the first part.”
Before the pivotal tragedy, The Hand of God plays almost like a lighthearted coming-of-age story. We meet Fabietto’s colourful family: his parents (who are blissfully in love, despite some major fault lines), his cooler older brother, his virtually absent sister (in a running gag, she’s always in the bathroom), and his many aunts and uncles – not least Aunt Patrizia, uninhibited object of Fabietto’s adolescent lust, and a woman with clear mental health issues. There is also a bizarre scene in which Fabietto loses his virginity to a much older woman. “I tend to not say how much is true and how much is not true, but let’s say that almost everything is true,” says Sorrentino cryptically. The lively domestic dramas and alfresco family meals feel closer to classical Italian cinema than Sorrentino’s usual detachment.
“This is a completely different movie for me,” he admits. “I was scared to do these kind of scenes that I never did before. I normally adopt a certain style: I move my camera around because I’m searching for the truth. In this case, the approach was completely the opposite. Because I already had the truth, I didn’t need to go and look for it. I decided that if I kept my camera still, [the actors] would feel freer to express themselves with sincerity and authenticity, which is what they did.”
Aptly, Maradona is a semi-divine presence in the story. It wasn’t just Sorrentino but all of Naples that saw him that way: a footballing god sent to save their nondescript team (which he did, leading them to their first league title in 1987). Neapolitans also rooted for Argentina against England at the 1986 Wêreldbeker, when Maradona scored his infamous “hand of God” goal, four years after the Falklands war. (“It was a political act,” declares Fabietto’s uncle.) Sorrentino already paid homage to Maradona in his 2015 movie Youth, albeit in an unflattering cameo as an ailing, overweight has-been (it was an impersonator). He was hoping to show Maradona, who died last November, the finished movie. “Maradona said something very beautiful about football, which applies also to film-making,” says Sorrentino. “He said it’s a game that is based on tricks: you pretend you go left, and then you go right. The same thing with cinema.”
It is impossible to speculate what might have happened had his parents survived, but The Hand of God suggests the tragedy was also a form of liberation and creative catalysis for Sorrentino. Inevitably, young Fabietto/Sorrentino decides he wants to be a film-maker, even though he has only seen three or four movies. He has a fateful encounter with a local film-maker, Antonio Capuano (played by Ciro Capano), who went on to hire and mentor Sorrentino in real life and gives Fabietto some tough advice: “You’ve got to have something to say.”
Sorrentino is a long, long way from the lost young man he depicts himself as in The Hand of God. It would be simplistic to imagine the movie was some kind of “healing experience”, but such a soul-baring film must surely represent some kind of turning point. Has it changed his perspective on those events?
“I don’t think that you are able to actually process a loss of that kind,” he muses. “You can try to take steps forward. You can improve your life. You can grow up. I’ve become a parent myself and that forced me to ponder on different issues, but you never come to terms with it. I am still today the result of that traumatic event in my adolescence, and a film is not enough to solve it …
“You just learn to live with it, little by little, but it’s always there.”
The Hand of God is in cinemas now and on Netflix from 17 Desember