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Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘Hand of God’ is about family -- and the future for young people

Paolo Sorrentino, director of the international film THE HAND OF GOD
Paolo Sorrentino, director of the international film THE HAND OF GOD, an autobiographical look at his childhood in Naples, Italy poses for a portrait on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 in Santa Monica, CA. (
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)
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How do you pick an actor to, essentially, play yourself? And, more specifically, to portray yourself at one of the most pivotal moments in your life? That was the challenge in front of filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino when it came to his semi-autographical new film, “The Hand of God.”

His predicament? Casting someone to play him as a young adult living with his parents in Naples, Italy, while dreaming of moving to Rome to direct movies. After auditioning hundreds of people and many screen tests, he found his muse in newcomer Filippo Scotti. And, perhaps, a future star was born.

“I wanted for him to be a shy kid with an ability to observe the world and grasp all the details, which was then the precondition, which turned me into a soul maker,” Sorrentino says. “I wanted for him to be somebody who is not well at ease with the world. Characterized by an underlying melancholy and solitude and loneliness.”

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As Fabietto, Sorrentino’s fictional version of himself, Scotti experiences the loves, laughs and, yes, melodrama of an extended Italian family in the 1980s. It would be unfortunate to reveal the key event that changes Fabietto’s life this early in the film’s cycle, but it’s an experience the 51-year-old Sorrentino felt he couldn’t share until now. Not just because of how it affected him personally, but the trauma it afflicted on his older brother (played by Marlon Joubert) and sister.

“This is the movie that one can make after the events have some big distance and one has cooled off, but not even that much, because after 35 years I’ve been tackling this issue all along, with a long interior monologue,” Sorrentino says. “And I feel like I had not made any progress in that. So my attempt to make this movie is a way to sort of shake things up in order to see whether by making this a universal [story] it could have been helpful to overcome the pain and issues that have been with me for over 35 years.”

In fact, screening the final film was something of a watershed moment for his brother in particular.

“He was deeply moved. He cried a lot,” Sorrentino says. “After we watched it together, we ended up talking well into the night. It was an opportunity for us to talk a lot about our lives when we were still with our parents.”

Paolo Sorrentino, director of the international film THE HAND OF GOD
Paolo Sorrentino, director of the international film THE HAND OF GOD, an autobiographical look at his childhood in Naples, Italy poses for a portrait on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 in Santa Monica, CA. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Like his most recent films — “The Great Beauty,” the 2014 foreign language Oscar winner, and “Youth” — Sorrentino’s latest creation often finds genuine humor in the everyday routines of life. For instance, many viewers may wonder why Fabietto’s sister is only heard and never seen in the picture. It certainly wasn’t a request on her part to be portrayed as never coming out from behind the family’s bathroom door. It was simply how Sorrentino pictured her in his life at that time.

“In my imagination as a kid, that’s the way I remembered her, because she is 13 years older than I am. And, when we were kids, I recall her being in the bathroom all the time to get ready to go out on dates with her boyfriend,” Sorrentino says. “If anything, my sister complained that she doesn’t appear enough in the movie.”

The picture, selected as Italy’s official submission for the international film Oscar, also shines a loving spotlight on the characters that peppered his family. There was his mother, a conjuror of hilarious pranks. The beautiful but troubled aunt who believes she’s been blessed by Naples’ mythical Little Monk. The wealthy aunt who hosts family meals while chomping only on a gigantic piece of burrata cheese. Her steely-eyed judgment of her kin so predictable, they simply laugh it all off. The cousins to frolic with in the Mediterranean. Sadly, that close-knit extended family he depicts in the movie also appears to be a relic of his past.

“Well, now that we’re all grownups, it’s no longer that way,” Sorrentino says. “Some of the aunts have passed away, and we’ve kind of gone in all different directions. But when we were still kids, yes, it was exactly the way it is in the film. And it was a source of great joy to have a family that was so full of enthusiasm and carefree, and so closely met.”

“The Hand of God” took the Silver Lion, or the Grand Jury Prize, at the 2021 Venice Film Festival. And although Sorrentino already has an Oscar on his mantel, taking that honor from his peers and earning critical acclaim for this project has been particularly gratifying.

“I was very relieved that the movie was well received, because, obviously, this is a movie that is very dear to my heart, and it is the most important movie I’ve ever made,” Sorrentino notes. “I was very happy when I realized I was reaching the goal I set out for myself. And that was that I wanted to have people be moved and touched and relieved. Especially for young people, because in many cases, young people can have the idea that their day-to-day life is so hard that there is no future. They only see darkness, but the future is there.”


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