NAPLES, Italy – Paolo Sorrentino, on the terrace of the Grand Hotel Vesuvio, cigar in hand, gestured stretched out at the view of the bay in front of him. “Naples is so beautiful, but it’s so hard to capture or grab it,” he said. “I decided not to try and just tell the story of the characters.”
That story, in Sorrentino’s expanded new autobiographical film, “The Hand of God,” is a coming-of-age tale in which we find Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti), a shy teenager merrily wandering through his native Naples, comfortably surrounded by his rambunctious family, and preoccupied with sex and football. Then everything changes. Unhappy and introspective, he searches for new meaning and purpose, and towards the end has embarked on a burgeoning career as a filmmaker.
The film, which began streaming on Netflix on Wednesday, has been named as a contender for best international feature film at next year’s Oscars, winning Sorrentino in 2013 for “The Great Beauty.” “The Hand of God” also marks the director’s return to his hometown for the first time since his 2001 debut, “One Man Up”. Writing in DailyExpertNews, AO Scott called “The Hand of God” “a beautiful tautology: a real-life film about a life made for movies.”
“When I was younger, I was very skeptical of any attempt to make an autobiographical film,” Sorrentino, 51, said in Italian through a translator. “I started thinking about this 10 years ago, when I realized that my own life experience could be cinematic.”
He spent years collecting memories from his family, friends and parents, he said, before writing the screenplay in his typical process: very quickly, “no more than two weeks,” using the notes on the facts, ideas. and characters, and possible dialogues that took years to complete. “I have to have 3,000 ideas, then skim it until I get the cream,” he said.
“The Hand of God” was no more difficult to write, he added, than any other script, save for the psychological issue of “my own shyness and secrecy.”
“It’s no secret that I chose a profession behind, not in front of, the camera,” he said.
Filippo Scotti, the 21-year-old Italian actor who plays Fabietto, said he prepared for the role by asking Sorrentino what music he’d listened to and what movies he’d watched as a teenager.
“The first day of the shoot, I remember doing a scene about 15 times. Then I thought, I’ll focus on Paolo’s life, and I should focus on Fabietto’s life. After that it was easier,” said Scotti. “Having the thought, ‘I’m playing him’ – it’s kind of a nightmare!”
Although the film is based on the events of Sorrentino’s childhood and his memories of 1980s Naples, it is also partly fictional, according to the director. “When I write, I start to believe my own lies, to the point that I am no longer able to distinguish between what is true and false,” he said. “When I re-watched the film here in Naples last night, I realized how many lies it contains.”
The film opens with a mysterious meeting between a beautiful woman (Luisa Ranieri) at a bus stop, and a man who claims to be San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. (The other, unofficial patron saint of Naples is Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona; the film’s title refers to his description of a goal he scored in the 1986 World Cup.)
The surreal, hallucinatory images of that opening scene, including the depiction of a mythical figure called the Little Monk, that resonate throughout the film, are techniques characteristic of Sorrentino’s work, but also, he said, tropes deeply faithful to his birthplace.
“In Naples, the dogma of Catholicism is somehow structured in a very imaginative and fantastic creativity,” Sorrentino said. “God is too far away and that’s why you pray to your deceased parents and Maradona and saints who feel close to you.”
These extraordinary images and combinations are what sets Sorrentino apart as a filmmaker, said Toni Servillo, who plays Fabietto’s father in “The Hand of God” and starred in five other Sorrentino films, including “The Great Beauty.”
Sorrentino has “a gift of creating visuals, images and situations that are completely surprising,” Servillo said in a video interview. “That is the ability of a unique artist; to suggest something you’ve never thought of.”
Jude Law, who worked with Sorrentino on both “The Young Pope” and “The New Pope,” said the director would take a long time to find “the right way” to shoot a scene. “He makes beautiful and elegant camera moves,” he said, “which is so effective for an actor because you understand what he’s putting his eye on, what an audience is looking at.”
Sorrentino said he developed a passion for film when he was 17 or 18. “I thought it must be beautiful to do something that combined music, image and storytelling,” he said, although at the time he was studying economics at university and his family had little interest in art or culture. But he started volunteering for movies shot in Naples, and he met acclaimed director Antonio Capuano (played in “The Hand of God” by Ciro Capano) “just like it happens in the movies.”
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He started writing screenplays and won an award for ‘One Man Up’. “We found the small amount of money needed to make a movie,” he said. “It was an obsession to do it.”
Sorrentino has since written his own screenplays and his subjects have varied widely, including politics, via Italian Prime Ministers Giulio Andreotti (“Il Divo”) and Silvio Berlusconi (“Loro”); Catholicism, in the HBO series “The Young Pope” and “The New Pope; and the state of Italy, as seen through the eyes of a weary journalist, Jep Gambardella, in “The Great Beauty.”
Servillo said ‘The Hand of God’ reminded him of ‘the simplicity, the immediate emotions that were so typical of ‘One Man Up’, the first film we shot together’, but that Sorrentino’s ‘had evolved over the years. improved’ ability as a writer, the invention of character and the brilliance of the dialogues.”
The script was the main source for the character, said Teresa Saponangelo, who plays Fabietto’s mother in the film. “Paolo said very little about his mother, except that she was very funny, a joker and full of life,” Saponangelo said, adding that she expressed the many years of her character’s suppressed pain over her husband’s affair in a surprising scene halfway through the film.
“Paolo is not the kind of director who tells you to use a certain tone or express an emotion,” she said. “He builds the scaffolding, then you only move with the freedom and confidence he gives you.”
One lesson Sorrentino will learn from “The Hand of God,” he said, is “a new way of telling stories that is simpler and produces decent results.” After nine films, he added, “You get bored with what you know, it gets mannered.”
When asked if making the film had been therapeutic, Sorrentino said he thought so. After writing and reflecting on these events in his childhood, he said, “My pain and suffering that I’ve had all my life is not that interesting.”
He thought for a moment. “After all, I’m 51,” he said. “I can’t go on like I’m at 17.”