Italy's 2021 submission for the International Oscar is a beautiful coming-of-age story and a love letter to both director Paolo Sorrentino's native Naples and the art of filmmaking. There are many memorable images in The Hand of God, mostly involving a contrast of dark interiors with the sapphire Mediterranean and the blinding sun of southern Italy. Likewise, the film's characters and scenarios are extremely evocative, and many viewers likely won't be certain for the first hour or so of where this family portrait is leading, story-wise. Late in the film, after the story's arc is clear, Fabietto (fantastic newcomer Scotti) meets a fictionalized version of Napolese filmmaker Antonio Capuana, and the two have a conversation about what inspires meaningful movies. It feels like the Naples-born Sorrentino talking to a younger version of himself, and indeed the tragedy at the heart of this story is autobiographical.
A character in The Hand of God repeatedly asks why his relatives are all such "disappointments," and Sorrentino does seem to want to delve into the messiness of humankind, our contradictions and complications. Rather than depict Fabietto's parents as perfect, a lazier way of eliciting emotion upon (spoiler alert) their demise, Sorrentino shows that they have a wonderful love story while also living with infidelities and inconsistencies. The film forces viewers to confront their own biases, expectations, and moral discrepancies -- for example, in a sex scene that many would classify as inappropriate but which still conveys great tenderness and benevolence, or through quirky, Fellini-esque characters and disconcerting scenarios. The pranks and mutual critiques of family members in the film can border on cruelty, but family is always there -- stuffed into crowded apartments, watched over by black-clad matriarchs, celebrating soccer highs, commiserating life's lows. The movie's memorable blend of characters, ideas, and images add up to a striking film-watching experience, one with more cohesion and poignant storytelling than Sorrentino's 2014 Oscar-winner The Great Beauty.