Interview: In ‘The Hand of God,’ Paolo Sorrentino shines a light on his past to discover who he is now
Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film, The Hand of God (2021, available on Netflix) is also his most personal one. Some may call it a departure from his trademark narrative and visual style: stripped down almost entirely of complex compositional and lighting schemes and dreamlike, Felliniesque asides, the autobiographical film captures the auteur’s formative years as Fabietto, a quiet and reserved 17-year-old in love with movies, Naples, and Diego Maradona, who is suddenly thrust into adulthood following a devastating personal tragedy. The title of the film refers directly to the legendary Argentinian soccer player who joined S.S.C. Napoli in the ‘80s and obliquely changed the trajectory of Sorrentino’s life – a fatalistic nod to the way in which seemingly unrelated events have the power to reconfigure someone’s very existence – and, perhaps against all odds, also filled it with purpose and a renewed sense of self. The Hand of God is, first and foremost, Sorrentino’s love letter to his parents, his family, and the city in which he grew up, but it is also a film about the possibilities that await us just around the corner from unspeakable sorrow and hardship, and an ode to the resilience, courage, and strength that it takes to make them our own.
In that sense, this latest work is a meaningful companion to the director’s perhaps most noted and celebrated film, The Great Beauty (2013). Much like Jep, the jaded, elderly protagonist of Beauty, Fabietto finds himself looking for a reason to go on. Jep finds it away from the lavish parties and extravagant lifestyle in which he indulged to numb his own crushing sense of worthlessness; for Fabietto, it is about reclaiming his own voice and speaking it out loud. Both stories, in different ways, mobilize suggestive ideas about the therapeutic power of art, but The Hand of God also represents a staggering act of courage in Sorrentino’s willingness to confront his grief head-on. It is then no surprise that both films were selected by Italy as official submissions for the Best International Feature Academy Award. The Great Beauty famously captured the Oscar back in 2014, and The Hand of God seems poised to follow in its footsteps, after advancing to the shortlist of 15 films still in the run for the award with a more than realistic change to nab a nomination when the 5 candidates are unveiled on February 8. The film faces formidable competition from entries from Japan, Denmark, Finland, Iran, and Norway, among others, but is perhaps the most accessible and intimate film of the lot and has already garnered nominations from the Critics’ Choice Awards, European Film Awards, and Golden Globes (as well as longlisted in 5 categories at BAFTA), positioning Sorrentino himself as a credible contender for a Best Director Oscar nomination.
In this interview, I asked the director about finding the strength to tell this story, his love of Naples and the city’s ineffable love story with the sea, his approach in tackling a new and different cinematic language, as well as his collaboration with Netflix and a new mode in film production, and his hopes regarding a possible second Oscar triumph.
Francesco Pascuzzi: I’d love to talk about your decision to tell this story – in particular, what clicked in your life and in your career that convinced you to share such a personal story with everyone.
Paolo Sorrentino: You know, last year I turned 50. With the passing of time, for someone who does what I do, you start asking yourself, “How many movies do I have left?” It’s different when you’re 30 and you feel like there is an infinite number of movies ahead of you; at my age, you begin to look for a purpose for your next project. So, I told myself that I had a small number of movies I was interested in, and among them, The Hand of God is a movie I’d been thinking about for several years now – I decided it was time to prioritize it because it was the story I was most interested in, and I had been wary and almost afraid to tell it. There were also several more practical reasons that pushed me in that direction; I came back from the US where I was working on something else, and with the pandemic ongoing, it wasn’t realistic for me to commit to a project involving a huge cast and crew. This just felt like the right movie at the right time. Beyond that, I was really looking forward to going back to Naples for the summer. I left Naples 15 years ago and at first, I was enthusiastic about Rome and the novelty of it all; after a few years, that enthusiasm settled, and I started feeling nostalgic for Naples again. So, I thought, “I have a story to tell in Naples,” and I had never really made a movie about Naples except maybe for my first one, even though those characters could have lived anywhere close to the sea. So, these are the reasons why I decided I would do it.
FP: I’m happy you mentioned Naples. Having seen the movie, I felt like Naples really was a character unto itself. On the one hand it is obviously a real, lived-in city, but on the other hand there is also a more surreal component, the magic realism of the monasciello for example. Could you tell me a bit about Naples as a character in the movie?
PS: Naples is a rather insidious character because it’s been narrated a lot and from a lot of different angles. There’s the angle of organized crime which comes with a rather negative connotation and always seems to create a lot of controversy; the same goes for portrayals that are more stereotypical and almost postcard-like – for a lot of people, that Naples doesn’t exist anymore. In that sense, Naples is almost a borderline, dangerous entity. For me it was easy because I talked about the city I used to know when I was younger, the same locations I used to know back then, and that’s what I stuck with. It just so happens that my Naples is a bit out of left field, if you will, and not as known. I’m thinking of those middle-class boroughs that 50 or so years ago were still open countryside and, following the housing boom, have been turned into shelters or, at best, plain, ordinary middle-class neighborhoods. That is the Naples I knew. To add to that, there’s also my relationship with the sea. Everyone in Naples is deeply connected to the sea; as soon as you get a minute of free time, that’s where you go. Other seaside cities aren’t as connected to the water as Naples is, and it is everywhere around you.
FP: Your nod to the sea made me think of that incredible areal opening sequence. It is at once an all-encompassing view that also feels rather intimate in a way. Could you talk a bit about the bay and what inspired that opening shot?
PS: Naples was built because someone got there by sea. In that sense, the best way to begin a story about Naples was to introduce the city the way it was back then – someone must have done a 360 around it and they saw that the bay hugs it practically in its entirety. I didn’t do a 360 but almost – I left the Vesuvius out. [laughs] Apart from this historical inspiration, I wanted to recreate the sense of enchantment I experienced as a kid – going out to sea with my dad’s friends who all had boats and getting that overwhelming feeling of getting a full view of the city from there, the stillness and the distant sounds and noises that you could only experience from far away, from the sea. The whole movie is aiming for a sense of enchantment and wonder as well as disappointment, which is what I experienced there when I was younger.
FP: Aesthetically, The Hand of God is a departure from your past work in that it takes place in the real, actual locations of your childhood and adolescence. Did you have to change your creative approach at all?
PS: Yes. I had to flip my process around completely. Generally, when I am scouting filming locations, I take pictures. Then I consider any aesthetic and compositional patterns that may emerge from these pictures, and any location that doesn’t fit in gets discarded. In the case of this movie, it was the exact opposite: the locations were already there because I had already decided to use them, so I had to adapt my style around them. If I wasn’t shooting an autobiographical movie, none of these locations would have made the cut – for example, I would never set a movie in my childhood home. The best way to adapt to a location is to stay still – this is true for movies as well as real life – [laughs] so I chose stillness. This also helped in working with a young actor, a newcomer – having to consider different types of camera movement or a specific aesthetic purpose behind the way a shot is blocked can put a lot of pressure on your cast, and they start worrying about specific scenes or about the lighting on top of their performances. In this case, I wanted to put emotions at the forefront and my aesthetic approach had to take a step back. I didn’t need to micromanage. It was the best way to tell this story, and I understood it right away. At first, I did what I usually do – tracking shots and so on – but already on the first day of shooting my DP and I felt that this formula, which worked and was gratifying in the past, wouldn’t make sense here. We decided that the only camera movements would have to be functional to the story, and we didn’t need that many.
FP: That newcomer is Filippo Scotti. How did you find him? Were you looking for any specific traits or characteristics to cast this role? Did you work together during filming to flesh out the character?
PS: I wasn’t looking for someone who resembled me, even though in the end I accidentally found someone who does in a way. We don’t look alike – he’s much more charming and handsome than I ever was at 17 and it wouldn’t take much – every single actor who came through the door to audition for the role was. I was looking for someone who had the same shyness, the same internal turmoil and feeling of inadequacy I did when I was that age. Out of all the actors I met, Filippo was the one who most closely approximated all of that, and that is why I chose him. On top of that, despite his age, he immediately proved himself to be up to the task – especially the task of holding so many scenes together. We rehearsed at length every single scene in the movie: often, the rest of the cast is out of pace with the main actor – it’s like the difference between running a marathon and a 100-meter dash. To answer your other question, I don’t spend an excessive amount of time fleshing out the characters. I work at length on developing the script so that it becomes a guidepost for the cast; Filippo asked me questions and spent the summer in his own space, listening to music and watching movies that were part of my adolescence. I gave him those musical and filmic references to work with. Beyond that, he completely took ownership of the character – I’m a 50-year-old man who doesn’t resemble that kid anymore, so he paid attention to the way I walk, and we agreed he would reproduce that in the film. For the rest, he created his own character autonomously.
FP: Was it the same with Toni Servillo and Teresa Saponangelo? You all obviously already knew each other and had collaborated in the past, but here they’re playing your parents – there is a different level of intimacy that comes with that. I was interested in how you worked with them to recreate your parents as characters in the movie.
PS: It was different for each one of them. I was able to really put my mom into focus as a human being – she hid her suffering behind this façade of exuberance and this joyous disposition. I knew Teresa possessed these characteristics, that exuberance and joy – we’ve known each other since we were small kids. So, I met with several different actresses but in the back of my mind I kept telling myself, “When I meet with Teresa, I know it will be her.” She just comes so close to the mental image of my mother as I remember her. It was different with my father because he was quite the silent and mysterious type. I didn’t really know him and then I lost him at 16, so when I had to tell Toni about him, I didn’t have a whole lot to say. In that sense, Toni was great at creating a character out of very little intel. I think he only pulled it off because we have known each other for so many years – any other actor would have probably jumped ship. But he was great – I think he created him using his own father as a reference, and he was able to capture specific characteristics even though I realize I gave him a lot of contradicting information. He did it all himself.
FP: Netflix is shifting more and more towards the creation of original content. It is obviously a massive platform with plenty of resources. I wanted to know how they supported you and this project, and if this new mode of collaboration changed at all your approach to making films.
PS: Not a whole lot changed for me. Movies are movies – you might make different choices at times, but at the end of the day it’s always the same dynamics. I don’t think that process has changed much; I talk to colleagues all over the world, and in the end, we always agree that the basics are the same for all of us. That said, my collaboration with Netflix was great, maybe one of the very best out of any producer with whom I’ve worked. They were extremely generous, they supported me, they believed and still believe in the movie, and they were very proactive without ever crossing any lines or trying to impose their own point of view. They were warm and affectionate. They’re also incredibly well organized – a huge, well-oiled machine. That was new for me – not that previous producers weren’t supportive – but Netflix is producing so much content and they really showed up for me.
FP: One last question – the Oscars. The Hand of God was shortlisted alongside 14 other films for the International Feature Film award. This is in my opinion the strongest category at the Oscars year in and year out. I wanted to know if you had any hopes or expectations at this point, and if you happened to scope out the competition.
PS: What can I say? To use a term that has become part of our everyday vocabulary, I’ve already been vaccinated. I’ve been through this once before, and I’ve become quite accustomed to the various, different mechanics at play and how unpredictable they can be, how everything can change over the span of a couple of days, how the tides may turn suddenly. The year of The Great Beauty, everybody was talking about my movie and out of the blue, almost overnight no one was talking about us anymore and they all shifted their attention towards the Belgian film. So, suddenly it felt like arriving to a party, except you’ve done something wrong, and no one is talking to you. So, I learned that what matters is doing the work that needs to be done, and Netflix helped us a lot with all the traveling, screenings, press, meetings, and just be fatalistic about it. We’ll see what happens – there’s nothing else you can do. Every year there are so many competitive, great movies – this year as well, and there are 7000 or so different people voting on these, so it’s impossible to be in the head of every voter across the world. It’s all so much bigger than you are. So, you do your job, and you make sure you don’t leave something on the table so you won’t have any regrets – “I didn’t go there, they would have loved the movie” – so you do it, and in the end, it goes how it goes.
FP: Thank you so much. I adored the film and to me, it was like traveling back in the past – it reminded me of when I lived in Italy, going to school there, and so many different places and locations dear to my heart. Good luck – this movie is so deserving.
PS: Thank you so much. We’re hoping for the best. Thank you.
The Hand of God is currently available to stream exclusively on Netflix.
Photo: Gianni Fiorito/Netflix