The Hand of God Four Stars In cinemas now; Cert 15A
All artists spend years circling their parents, the author Kevin Barry once said. For Paolo Sorrentino, the mercurial Italian writer-director who landed a Foreign Language Oscar in 2014 for The Great Beauty, the time has come to approach.
As a teenager growing up in Naples during the 1980s, Sorrentino was orphaned when both of his parents died from carbon monoxide poisoning. He might have perished too had he not travelled to a game in Tuscany to watch his beloved Napoli and their newly signed football deity Diego Maradona. These things are depicted in The Hand of God, a nostalgia-heavy film that is Sorrentino’s most personal to date. It suggests that the vacuum left behind by his parents’ untimely deaths would prove a creative springboard for the young Sorrentino, who had previously only flirted with the idea of losing himself inside lights, camera, action.
What it does not tell us is if this early trauma fed into the slippy, exuberant brand of escapism that often characterises Sorrentino’s storytelling. We tend to find his male protagonists at times of personal crisis, blinding themselves with sensuality and ostentation in order to flee the torments of power, ageing and beautiful women. There are shades of these things in The Hand of God (a title that transcends a mere reference to Maradona’s notorious handball in the 1986 World Cup) but by and large this is more sober and poignant territory for a director who can veer from visionary bravura (The Great Beauty, This Must Be The Place) to over-icing the cake (Loro).
Newcomer Filippo Scotti plays Fabietto Schisa. Approaching the age of 17 and yet to figure out where he is going in the world, Fabietto is surrounded by a large, colourful, and loving extended family (introduced to us in one magnificent swoop during an al fresco family lunch). His parents Maria (Teresa Saponangelo) and Saverio (Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo) are like best friends to him, while older brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert) always has his back. In Napoli, the humdrum is kept at bay by the official religion of the city – football.
On everyone’s lips are rumours that the local team are set to sign the Argentinian maestro himself, Diego Maradona, and this for many will be the axis on which the entire city’s fortunes hinge.
There is much of the quiet desperation about Fabietto. He is at an age when he is noticing things in those around him that he might once have taken for granted. Nowhere does this seem more intensely rendered than in his beautiful but troubled aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri). She is fundamental to a sexual awakening in the young man but mixed in with this burgeoning desire is great concern.
When she is taken into psychiatric care and he subsequently learns of the reasons behind her breakdown, she becomes an indelible muse that he will carry forward through life.
Everything, however, turns on the tragedy that befalls his parents, which comes at a time when he is growing increasingly interested in a film shoot taking place in a nearby shopping arcade.
This Venice Grand Jury prizewinner is filled with Sorrentino’s affection for the boy he used to be and the parents he lost (the 51-year-old has spoken about the difficulty in filming the scenes relating to Maria and Saverio’s death).
The pared-back style has not meant the suspension of Sorrentino’s trademark vision, wit and incandescence, though. We still get sumptuous tracking shots in and around the crumbling city and its waterside. Character-based humour erupts like a volcano, and for every male gaze there is a willing Venus lighting up the frame. Unorthodox flourishes mushroom up as the hormonal, football-mad, but callow and insecure, world view of Fabietto creates shifts in reality. Scotti, Servilo, Saponangelo and Ranieri are at the core of an excellent ensemble cast.
Sorrentino is one of the finest filmmakers at work today but he was arguably at risk of becoming more known for his carnivalesque flair than his deeper currents. The Hand of God therefore feels like the ideal film for him to make as he passes half a century in age, and it may yet be the start of a new chapter in a fascinating filmmaking journey (he is reported to be signed-up for two upcoming Jennifer Lawrence productions).
And even if Sorrentino returns to his more excessive tendencies, you feel that this coming-of-age reflection is likely to be remembered as one of his greater beauties.
Now showing; Cert 15A
Antonio LeBlanc (writer, director and star Justin Chon) is trying to do right by pregnant partner Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and step-daughter Jessie. Adopted as an orphan, Korean-born Antonio is having much difficulty shaking off his tearaway years, including a criminal record from his time in a motorbike gang. Combined with old-fashioned attitudes to race in the Deep South, the only work he can cobble together is renting a booth at a tattoo parlour.
A moment of bad luck with local cops – Kathy’s former beau (Mark O’Brien) and his racist partner (Emory Cohen) – sees Antonio fall foul of immigration authorities and the prospect of deportation. The result is legal bills and an urgency to find quick money, even if that involves revisiting the life he left behind.
Chon certainly deserves credit for helming and starring in a film that focuses on the lowest ebbs of the immigrant experience in the US. Blue Bayou is a heavy-handed exercise in melodrama, however. Despite committed performances and some arresting cinematography, it often resorts to the cricket bat while dishing out its tale of woe, especially in those key scenes where a bit more subtlety and fresh air might have paid dividends.
In selected cinemas; Cert 15A
C’mon, C’mon – it’s a phrase familiar to anyone whose day involves herding young children. In the case of this gorgeous little film from the always perceptive Mike Mills (Beginners), the call comes in the other direction as youth draws out the buried emotions of a buttoned-up adult.
As the kind, conscientious, and portly Johnny, Joaquin Phoenix is transformed from his last outing in Joker. A radio journalist who is touring the US interviewing young people about their fears and aspirations for the future, he is tasked with minding Jessie (Woody Norman), the precocious young son of his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), while she cares for her ex-husband (Scoot McNairy). Under a deadline, Johnny takes Jessie on the road to New York and New Orleans, where the pair not only learn to meet in the middle, but find healing too.
Shot in elegant monochrome by Dublin cinematography giant Robbie Ryan and measured out with stately poise and sensitivity by its writer-director, this is a late jewel of 2021 that gently and persuasively makes its case for family support networks and the clear-eyed intelligence of young people. Phoenix and Norman, meanwhile, are just the most charming screen duo of the year.
In cinemas now; Cert 15A
The Nazi mechanisms that won a nation’s complicity in industrial-scale murder remain one of the most enduring areas of psychological study. Having grown up with a veil of secrecy surrounding the death of his grandparents in a camp, documentary filmmaker Luke Holland set out to find their killers. When it became clear this was impossible, he decided to interview those retired Nazi officers still alive, with a view to understanding their convictions.
As with Claude Lanzmann’s seminal Shoah (1985), Final Account cracks open the heart of darkness using little more than a camera and a microphone. Former SS officers range from staunchly unrepentant to guilt-ridden. One-time cadets in the Nazi girls’ league smile at the memory of their smart uniforms. A reformed SS man reaches breaking point while trying to appeal to young students to take the seductive methods of evil more seriously than they do.
“Perpetrators are not born,” notes Holland, who sadly died last year aged 71 while this incisive, revelatory, and canonical Holocaust documentary was in post-production. “They are made.”