In The Hand of God, Paolo Sorrentino tells an intimate story about growing up in Naples, Italy. The turbulent coming-of-age film, marking the director’s most personal and emotional work yet, concerns Diego Maradona joining the Napoli soccer team in 1986 and its cultural impact. The story is threaded with Sorrentino’s colorful, absurd family members, and held together with grief from the untimely loss of his parents. 

Actor Filippo Scotti plays Fabietto, effectively a young Sorrentino. To insert himself in the film, the director stripped back familiar elements of his filmmaking: gone are the heightened irony and formal style, in their place is unadulterated storytelling with everyday characters rich in personality and love. 

With Italy’s Oscar contender now playing in theaters and coming to Netflix on Wednesday, The Film Stage sat down with Sorrentino and Scotti to discuss their film. 

The Film Stage: There’s a VHS copy of Once Upon a Time in America that Fabietto tries to watch in the movie. What’s your connection to Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, and why did you place it in the film?

Paolo Sorrentino: It’s a movie that I loved very much in my youth, and I still do. It’s a movie in America and an epic of friendship and great cinema. It’s a movie that made me dream of cinema.

Tell me about your native Naples’s relationship with Diego Maradona, and what his joining the Napoli soccer team in 1986 meant for the town.

Sorrentino: Maradona was a lot more than a soccer player. He was a man who appeared with his charismatic figure. We experienced him as somebody who would bring hope, as if he was capable of bringing joy to us. So a lot more than a soccer player. He gave us back joy and a will to live, for people of my generation, but also for older people in this city, which had to undergo a lot of problems. It was crime-ridden and it was going through a really dark period after a massive earthquake which had devastated the city in the 1980s. It drowned the city’s economy at that time. So he gave us joy back.

How did you come to perceive Maradona as a force that protects your life, and by extension, how that deepens the meaning of “the hand of God” beyond soccer?

Sorrentino: If you think a major public figure saved your life, you end up perceiving them as a friend even though you don’t know them.

Filippo, will you talk about filming the scene at the hospital, when your character Fabietto is not allowed to see his parents’ dead bodies?

Filippo Scotti: That was the last scene that me and Marlon Joubert, who plays my brother, shot. It was the last day of shooting for us. We were lucky, in my opinion, because we had the possibility to focus and express as much as we could on that scene. All the stress and the emotion that we lived during these two months shooting. 

The first time I did the scene was the second time I met Paolo, at the third audition. Paulo asked me to say those lines and to walk around the audition room. After that moment, we never talked again about that scene; it was a scene that was always with us. I mean, at least for me, I was always thinking about that scene. Sometimes I was remembering and I was asking myself when we will film it. Then the moment arrived. 

Paulo, following up, you’ve said that after your parents died, the movies were a source of salvation for you. Was it the movies or was it seeing movies in a theater? 

Sorrentino: Both: seeing films at the cinema was a great opportunity to suspend the heaviness of pain, and making them even more so. It gave me the opportunity to suspend a reality that I didn’t like.

How do you feel about the trouble cinemas face today with many closing permanently and people not returning to them?

Sorrentino: What am I supposed to say? I hope that changes. Going to the cinema is an ancient dream, so I am sure that it will change. 

Will you talk about filming this autobiography? You’ve said you turn your problems into the film’s problems. What does that mean in practice?

Sorrentino: I meant that putting problems further away from you via a film is a good idea. My problems, as long as they remained within my mind, felt like huge ones. Transforming them into work was therapeutic.

Filippo, let’s talk about Fabietto’s relationship with the septuagenarian Baronessa Focale (Betty Pedrazzi) and how she helps him lose his virginity.

Scotti: That scene happens after a tragic event and it’s a key scene because, after that sweet moment with the baroness, Fabietto’s able to see again—at least to see a side of his future. When we filmed the scene it was very cute. The baroness is telling me that she’s helping me to see the future in that moment of Fabietto’s life.

Will you also talk about making a movie with a large ensemble of actors playing these amazing, charming, and beautiful family members of Fabietto’s extended family?

Scotti: For me it was a great pleasure. During my teenage years I went into theater, I went into cinema, so I knew basically all of the actors. To be able to have this possibility to join them in this amazing journey was a great honor. Something interesting is that everyone has a method. There is not the right method to work—one actor will use a method to act and one has another type. It was interesting to try to capture the way to work with everyone.

Paolo, in using the line from Dante’s Inferno, “through me is the way to the city of woe,” are you referring to Maradona or the Devil? Because Maradona’s a salvific figure in the film but this line is etched on the gates of hell in the Inferno.

Sorrentino: It’s a characteristic Fabietto had. Something very common for kids that age in high school is they’re very impressed by what they’re studying. So they quote that when you’re in a classical high school, like I was. You study Dante, and therefore you’re quoting his work. It was also a device that I used to highlight the cultural difference between him and his parents. If it is true that, generation after generation, people tend to improve, well, it was a way to show that he attached much greater significance to culture, which his parents didn’t for a number of reasons.

Will you talk about the inclusion of Fellini casting a movie within your movie?

Sorrentino: I tried to be very careful not to make a movie like Amarcord, which is a masterpiece and cannot be imitated. The anecdote of my brother going to a Fellini audition is factual. It truly happened. Fellini is a filmmaker I greatly admire, who had a huge influence on me, and I’m indebted to him. So it is possible that it may have entered into my movie through the backdoor without me even realizing that. But I did deliberately try to do my best not to imitate him, even though I might not have succeeded in that.

The Hand of God is now in theaters and arrives on Netflix on Wednesday, December 15.

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