By Jesper Storgaard Jensen

“This is my most personal film so far”. In recent months, film director Paolo Sorrentino, when interviewed about his recent film The Hand of God, has repeated this sentence several times. Actually, so often that it almost seems to have the strength of a religious mantra. And this – being his most personal film – could really not come as a surprise, since Sorrentino tells the story about his family, and, especially, about the sudden death of his parents.

At the age of 16, Paolo Sorrentino used to go with his parents to the family’s newly bought countryside house in Roccaraso. But that particular weekend, when the tragedy occurred, the young Paolo did not join his parents. He preferred to stay in his hometown Napoli. He had arranged with friends to watch a soccer game involving his favourite team S. S. C. Napoli, where Diego Armando Maradona was playing at the time.

In Roccaraso, in the small house, there was a leak of carbon dioxide. This led to a huge explosion. Back in Napoli, Paolo’s life changed radically from one second to another.

“My parents died when I was 16, and it was an indescribable tragedy. The words I know are not suitable. My youth ended that day. At 16. There is no right time to lose your parents but losing them during your teenage years is a very serious problem. Certain losses don’t just create pain. You suddenly become old and at the same time you remain anchored to childhood. At 16, you need support, comfort, security. On the day of my parents’ funeral, the principal of my school only sent a representation of four classmates and not the whole class. I was extremely disappointed about that. But today, it doesn’t matter anymore because now the whole class is present, they are the audience to my film. Cinema can be used to distract from reality. Because the reality is poor. This is why I want another life. This is why I want to make films. I want my children to know that the future can be there for everyone, even for those who leave their childhood with a handicap,” Sorrentino said in an interview to the Italian weekly Il Venerdì.

When creating art – both in writing and in a cinematic language – that emanates from a highly personal experience, there is often a fine line between the part which is strictly personal and the one that has been added for artistic purpose. Sorrentino has been forced to make decisions in that aspect.

“I have had to cut the time of the pain that my parents’ death had inflicted on me. This is in order not to make a devastating film. I remember the pain in these years as much more articulate and burdensome. I have also had to cut out certain things that would risk annoying the spectator. Then, as regards the timeline, I have had to mix different events to give them a natural order. I have quite a good memory about my childhood and teen years, so I have been able to choose elements to build the plot, so that it could have a value to the whole movie. You need to do that as a director because certain things may be important to you, but less important to the spectator,” Sorrentino says.

The Sorrentino Touch

The Hand of God is Sorrentino’s tenth film. You’ll definitely feel the famous Sorrentino touch, which has always been so difficult to describe. It seems to be something invisible, floating in the air. Is it the lighting? The photography? Is it the way the story is told? Is it the oddness – or even bizarreness – of certain characters? Perhaps a mix of all these elements.

However, despite the presence of the invisible ‘Sorrentino trademark’, in some way, the film seems to be ‘different’ from his previous work.

“I have never interrogated myself too much about my films. I have been used to making them in a certain way. But at a certain point – I must admit it – it got a bit tired. I became aware of the fact that frequently using the same tricks and making variations on the same theme, I only managed to reproduce the same things, but in a slightly different manner. I had become habitual. When I think about The New Pope series, it is as though that counts for ten films. At a certain point, your mental images seem to end, you use them all and then you start to repeat them. This new film is totally different. It’s much more simple, without articulate and complex feelings. It’s a film about joy and about pain,” he explains.

The film’s gallery of strong personalities is impressive. Until the incident occurs, Sorrentino’s family life seems to have been quite colourful, full of extravagant family members.

“Well, my family was like that. People from Napoli are quite blatant. They have a very strong instinct of acting, and I was living inside this family setting. I do believe that it is due to the fact that throughout history Napolitaneans – in order to ingratiate themselves with the city’s many different dominators over time – have had to appear skilled, as nice people and also servile, and all this leads them to put up an act. This is the reality I was living in, and in that sense, it is a realistic film. That family was my world and my culture. My wife is from Napoli. We are like that. I’m like that,” Sorrentino explains.

You will indeed meet a number of out-of-the ordinary characters in The Hand of God, which also, in quite a frank way, tells the story about the adultery of Sorrentino’s father. On the question about how this issue was addressed in the family, he says to Il Venerdì: “‘It just happened’, my father said. And that was the end of conversation. That story went on like the winds. Some periods were quiet, and other periods not so quiet, when my mother discovered that my father was still seeing his lover.”

Sorrentino Senior’s love affair not only produces quite a stormy family life – very well-illustrated in the film, it also gave him a stepbrother.

“He was born from my father’s secret relation. Back then, I was told the truth about his existence only the day after the death of my parents. And I have actually met him,” Sorrentino recounts.

Sorrentino also has a sister, who is only slightly visible in the film. In fact, she seems to be locked up in the family’s bathroom almost the whole time. Well, at least this is the impression you get as a viewer. Did she accept being ‘locked up’?

“She was actually the one who told me about my stepbrother. She is 13 years older than me, and after the death of our parents, she was very motherly to me. Those were the times of her first boyfriends, and I recall that she was in the bathroom for hours and hours. She was a bit sorry about her role in the film, so I have had to explain to her, that this was necessary from a dramaturgical point of view. And in the end, she accepted,” Sorrentino explains.

From Rome to Napoli

After Sorrentino’s biggest success, The Great Beauty – which was shot in Rome and gave him an Oscar in 2014 – he has returned to his hometown Napoli. Did this ‘coming home’ give him a sort emotional assurance during the making of the film?

“Well, actually not. And the reason is the way that I like to do my framings. Napoli is a hostile city because of its chaos. It’s not a coincidence that I have made two films in Switzerland [Youth, The Consequences of Love]. My film aesthetics have always been linked to an order of things. So, it’s not so easy to shoot in Napoli. But quite honestly, I wasn’t so concerned about the aesthetics. I have chosen some of the places I knew, when I was young, and in the film, you’ll see them as I remember them from my youth.”

Sorrentino has never hidden his “worship” of Maradona, whose name and “spirit” are an important element in the film. Back in 2015, in Youth, you’ll find the scene where a look-a-like Maradona juggles a tennis ball in quite a spectacular way. But Sorrentino does actually have a real life-memory of Maradona.

“Maradona didn’t arrive in Napoli. He suddenly appeared. There are no photos of his arrival in Napoli. But he showed up around Napoli, in the strangest places. He was driving a Fiat Panda in order not to be recognised. Once me and my brother saw him in a street, and in that moment, it was as though the world stood still.”

No doubt, it takes a lot of courage to make a film filled with personal childhood memories and full of pain. Has it been a liberation to, finally, make this film?

“Well, luckily I have always felt free to make whatever kind of film I wanted. But yes, this was the right moment, also because I have matured. Over time, the pain has become less intense, and in these months – before the premiere of the film – I have really been speaking so much about pain. So much that in the end it has been almost boring, whilst before it had only been like an intimate dialogue that I had had with myself for 35 years, and that, in terms of soothing the pain, had not made me feel any better. Perhaps making this film is a sign, that I have finally come to terms with that loss,” Sorrentino concludes.

The Hand of God is in cinemas now and will premiere on Netflix on 15 December 2021

Photos by Gianni Fiorito and Studio Lucherini Pignatelli

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