The Hand of God: Review

Two of my favourite things are football (or soccer for you Americans) and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, so I began my watch of The Hand of God with high hopes.

The film is a coming-of-age story set in 1980s Naples, a tumultuous town in a tumultuous period of Italian history, just a few short years after the kidnapping and death of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro (which definitely had absolutely nothing to do with the CIA). We’re introduced to the quirky Schisas and their extended family, a boisterous bunch of intriguing characters, although we mainly see the world through the eyes of the youngest son, Fabietto. A bit of a loser (“I have no friends” he tells his father at one point) he is, like many Napolitanas, football-obsessed, and dreaming of the infamous Diego Maradona signing for Napoli.

Maradona’s presence acts like a North star of sorts in the film. A man so gifted that on the talent/horrible-person matrix his domestic violence, mob ties, and blatant cheating is often ignored, he was certainly the sort of footballer who would draw this kind of devotion (if you don’t like or don’t watch football, I’d recommend watching some clips of him on YouTube – for his numerous faults, on the pitch he emits a grace that transcends the game). 

Those who aren’t grounded in football history might find the fervour of it all unbelievable, notably the scene where the Schisa parents are having a domestic spat during which the news Maradona is signing for Napoli comes out, forcing the familial tension out of the room for the male members of the household. But frankly that’s one of the most realistic scenes in the film. European (and South and Central American) Football clubs are deeply tied to their communities in ways American sports clubs never can or will be, many of them growing alongside labour movements. And in a place like Napoli, so trodden on for so long by the rich north of Italy and a hotbed of Communist activity (the Communist Party was the main opposition for decades in post-war Italy), this passion is doubled.

Although it eventually settles into a mediation on loss, at first The Hand of God switches between a bizarre, almost magical realist arthouse type of film, and an eccentric feelgood comedy. The balance is strange, but it kind of works. Sadly, the film then disappears almost entirely up its own asshole.While the movie is beautifully shot throughout, there are times the camera work seems to prioritise aesthetics over visual storytelling, creating distance in moments we might want to be close enough to feel the emotion of the scene.Sometimes this dissonance is done smartly, packing a punch, but mostly it isn’t.

Frankly, this is not a good film. It’s receiving rave reviews for the same reason La La Land did: it’s a movie about film making, and the sorts of people who can throw their heft around come award season are also the kinds of people who like to smell their own farts. The dialogue (admittedly translated for me by Netflix, as my Italian stretches to saying Spanish words with ornate hand movements) is hammy, especially towards the end when Fabietto meets a famous director who effectively tells him to grow up, doing so by addressing him as Fabio instead of the diminutive he’s been known by the rest of the film. Like most of the symbolism in The Hand of God, it’s heavy handed and predictable.

The film also acts as a love letter to Naples, and this is one of the few things it succeeds at, although if you’re looking for that sort of thing I’d recommend reading Ferrante instead. The Hand of God is mostly trite and cliché; the sort of thing an undergrad might make after learning about De Sica. If you deconstruct it the film can be a useful way to teach students about techniques, but when everything is cobbled together it falls flat – even with Maradona’s magic.

Sandeep is a writer based in London. He recently completed his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh and was longlisted for the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize 2021. He loves all kinds of beer, from cheap lagers to stouts so dark they would fight for Sauron.

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