Paolo Sorrentino’s extravagantly personal movie gives us all a sentimental education in this director’s boyhood and coming of age – or at any rate, what he now creatively remembers of it – in Naples in the 1980s, where everyone had gone collectively crazy for SSC Napoli’s new signing, footballing legend Diego Maradona. We watch as a family party explodes with joy around the TV when Maradona scores his handball goal in the 1986 World Cup. A leftwing uncle growls with pleasure at the imperialist English getting scammed.
This is a tribute to Sorrentino’s late parents, who in 1987 died together of carbon monoxide poisoning at their holiday chalet outside the city, where 16-year-old Paolo might himself also have been staying had it not been that he wanted to see Napoli playing at home. So maybe Maradona saved his life, but it was a bittersweet rescue. The hand of God, after all, struck down his mum and dad and spared him. Newcomer Filippo Scotti plays 16-year-old Fabietto (that is, Sorrentino himself) at the centre of a garrulous swirl of family members. Toni Servillo plays his dad, Saverio, and Teresa Saponangelo gives a lovely performance as his mother, Maria, with a skittish love of making practical jokes.
Sorrentino has clearly been waiting to make this all his life, consciously jettisoning some of the stylistic mannerisms that have made him unique in favour of something more simple and heartfelt, and whose ironies and grotesqueries are themselves more conventional. Naturally, Federico Fellini is important (Fabietto’s would-be actor brother Marchino, played by Marlon Joubert, auditions for the great man as an extra) and maybe Sorrentino wants this film to be his Amarcord.
The Hand of God has been coolly received critically on the festival circuit as something rather indulgent and salacious, rather as Fellini’s own later movies were, and the men of all ages do some leching here over Fabietto’s glamorous but troubled Aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), who likes sunbathing in the nude. (Actually, there is less objectifying here than in Sorrentino’s previous film Youth, which gave us Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel perving over Miss Universe while all of them are in the hot tub.)
But it would be really obtuse not to marvel at the exuberance, energy and vivid moment-by-moment immediacy of this movie: Sorrentino is a film-maker who is always on the move, on the attack. Fabietto witnesses a cigarette smuggler casually piloting a speedboat away from the police launch giving chase in the bay of Naples: this is the roguish Armando, played by Biagio Manna. Then, with dreamlike speed, Fabietto befriends him, has an adventure with him, and finally winds up visiting Armando in prison: it all happens with absolute ease. There is also Fabietto’s mother’s relationship with their haughty, ageing neighbour, the Baronessa (Betty Pedrazzi), who finally invites virginal Fabietto into her apartment to lead him to the next phase of his life.
As with all autobiographical movies, part of the pleasure is in wondering what the truth actually is. What effect did Sorrentino’s parents’ death have on his film-making? Have all his angular stylisations and Jonsonian satirical contortions until now just been a flight from that terrible catastrophe? Maybe. Fabietto confesses: “I want an imaginary life, like the one I had before.” He wants to find in film-making that mythologised happiness that was wrenched away with his parents’ death, and some of the poignancy is in discovering that cinema doesn’t work like that and neither does life. His imaginary life, as a child, was carefree; as an adult, it consists of making sense of pain.
• The Hand of God is in cinemas from 3 December and on Netflix from 15 December.