Paolo Sorrentino on the Tragedy That Inspired His New Film Hand of God

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Hand of God 2021 film still
Hand of God, 2021(Film still)

“It was like a newly found freedom”: The Oscar-winning director discusses his new film Hand of God – a devastating reflection on his own childhood, and his most personal release to date

For Paolo Sorrentino, Diego Maradona is a semi-divine figure. “He’s almost like a saint,” the director tells AnOther. “With a saint you don’t ask yourself why you believe in them, it’s just a given.” While the late Argentinian player invoked similar adoration from fans around the world, for Sorrentino the sentiment is especially potent. When he was 16 his father bought him a ticket to a Napoli match – Maradona had recently broken his own record, signing to the club for £6.9 million – but when he returned from the game he learned both his parents had died, killed by a carbon monoxide leak in the family home.

In The Hand of God, Sorrentino returns to this pivotal event. He revisits the contented moments that preceded it – lively meals and boat trips with his extended family – and explores what happened next, like losing his virginity, and his early fancy in cinema. He won’t specify which parts of the film are explicitly autobiographical, but “pretty much the entire movie” mirrors real life. Borrowing its title from Maradona’s 1986 World Cup goal, the player’s 1984 signing acts as a framework for the film, loosely matching the energy of each act.

“I was 50 years old,” says Sorrentino of the film’s genesis. “I was ready to see my past, instead of looking at the future; the future is starting to become boring. And if we are to do movies about what we know, I know myself when I was 17.” A different beast to his usual, more grandiose style of picture – such as 2013’s The Great Beauty, for which he won two Oscars – The Hand of God instead is a more reflective piece, its sensitivity echoed in its cinematography. Reproducing his story for the screen, considers the director, wasn’t always a tangible idea. “I thought maybe one day when I’m 70 I can do a book,” he says, switching between English and Italian with the help of a translator. “Then year after year I developed the idea that maybe it was a good movie. One day I tried to write a script, and incredibly it arrived in a few hours, and it was very good.”

When AnOther meets Sorrentino, the film has already secured accolades at the Venice Film Festival, picking up the Grand Jury Prize, and the Marcello Mastroianni Award for its star, Fillipo Scotti. “We tried to look for a good actor,” Sorrentino recalls of casting Scotti as Fabietto, through whose eyes The Hand of God is told, and who dons the same single earring as the director today. “And Fillipo is a very good actor. He looked pretty shy, exactly like I was at 17, and he had that precise kind of charisma that is useful for the character. But most importantly he’s a good actor.” Effectively portraying himself, the role’s potential weight didn’t concern Sorrentino, who kept his notes for the newcomer simple. “I just gave him the script, and then I told him ‘be careful, because the time will come where you’re going to be successful. Try not to let it get to your head’. That’s it.”

Elsewhere the film marks the latest collaboration in a 20-year relationship for Sorrentino and Toni Servillo, who most famously appeared as Jep Gambardella in The Great Beauty. “We laugh a lot together,” the filmmaker says. “We make fun of each other, and then when we get bored of making fun of each other we gang up against the others.” Playing Saverio, Fabietto’s father, Servillo’s involvement was especially valuable. “He was able to play this character very well without me having to describe it to him, because I didn’t know my father all that well. He was great because he understood my father better than I had understood him.”

While Fabietto and Saverio appear close on-screen, it’s his mother who sets the emotional tone in key moments of the film’s first half. Played by Teresa Saponangelo, during one particularly beautiful lunch scene, the family is seen cheering as she juggles oranges; it later becomes evident her talent is a coping mechanism. “My mum just juggled oranges to amuse us as children,” Sorrentino remembers, fondly. “She had learned when she was in school as a kid. She had to act in a play and she had to be a juggler, and she learned that with oranges as a kid.” Filming last year in Naples after an intense lockdown in Italy, the lunch scene imbues a sensibility reflective of the atmosphere on set. “It was beautiful,” he says. “We shot over the summer at the beach, it felt like a vacation. It was like a newly found freedom.”

Hand of God is in UK cinemas now, and available to watch on Netflix from December 15.