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Filippo Scotti and Marlon Joubert.Gianni Fiorito/Courtesy of Netflix

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The Hand of God

Written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino

Starring Filippo Scotti, Toni Servillo and Luisa Raneri

Classification R; 130 minutes

Opens in select theatres Dec. 3, including the TIFF Lightbox; streaming on Netflix starting Dec. 15

The Hand of God is the sort of lusty Italian neorealist dramedy they don’t make anymore – maybe with good reason.

Having proved his gifts for grandiose cinematic sensuality in The Great Beauty, Youth and HBO’s The Young Pope, Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino makes the inevitable jump to Netflix for his 10th feature film, which won the Grand Prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival. While more nip-slips occur here than in a direct-to-VOD sequel of American Pie, Sorrentino remains a sentimentalist at heart. The Hand of God is a wistful adolescent coming-of-age story that remains the director’s Amarcord, replete with a character unsuccessfully auditioning to be an extra in a Fellini film. It’s also way too long and overly precious about itself, but you just kind of have to go with it, okay?

The opening aerial shot illustrates Sorrentino’s flair for showy symbolism as his camera flies high over Naples, boats dotting the shoreline, until it meets a hearse passing on the road. We soon reverse in time to meet the Schisa clan, a family of broad Italian comic stereotypes – at odds with the melancholic undertones of Sorrentino’s script. Our central protagonist – and the director’s surrogate – is Fabrietto (Timothée Chalamet-esque newcomer Filippo Scotti), a teenaged outsider who likes to stand in the shadows observing and listening to electronica on his Walkman. At family gatherings, he quietly lusts after his aunt Patrizia (Luisa Raneri), a victim of domestic violence with an exhibitionist streak, and her penchant for stripping down at Schisa get-togethers fuels Fabrietto’s sexual awakening in the grossest way.

Filippo Scotti as Fabrietto, Toni Servillo as Saverio, Teresa Saponangelo as Maria and Marlon Joubert as Marchino in The Hand of God.Gianni Fiorito/Courtesy of Netflix

In The Hand of God, even if you are inappropriately masturbating to thoughts of them, family equals comfort. Fabrietto has no friends, and loves to spend time with his complicated parents. His warm, compassionate mother Maria (Teresa Saponagelo), also likes to pull mean-spirited pranks on her relatives and neighbours, and his father Saverio (Sorrentino mainstay Toni Servillo), is a lackadaisical communist with a long-standing mistress, which is eating Maria alive. They watch soccer games, delight in each other’s company, and obsess over Barcelona player Diego Maradona’s possible return to Naples, which becomes a pivotal throughline in the movie. Fabrietto also shares a bedroom with his older brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert), an aspiring actor, who tries to usher his younger brother into adulthood as best he can after the brother’s lives fall apart due to a cruel and unexpected tragedy.

Like Call Me By Your Name, the film is set in the 1980s, with intimate, sumptuous scenes of domestic life in Italian summertime. There are the mandatory scenes of long, languid lunches al fresco, with Maria and Saverio poking fun at their weakest and homeliest relatives, which naturally ends with Patrizia sunbathing nude on a boat as Fabrietto and his brother stare hornily agog. When Maria is tasked with rescuing her sister from a brutal domestic assault, the camera tracks Fabrietto on a scooter at warp speed driving to her rescue, as his laughing parents clutch on to their son for dear life. It’s an image of innocence Sorrentino returns to often – his final, happiest moment.

Luisa Ranieri as Patrizia.Gianni Fiorito/Courtesy of Netflix

The Hand of God wants to know why people shaped by trauma become filmmakers, and Fabrietto’s pain mirrors Sorrentino’s own loss of his parents at a young age. Behind the crude and ecstatic artifice is a risky, melancholy roman à clef that is the filmmaker’s most honest work. Later in the film, young Fabrietto has a chance encounter with Italian director Antonio Capuano (here played by Ciro Capano), who gave Sorrentino his first screenwriting credit in real life. Fabrietto confesses to him that he wants to make movies now, saying: “I want an imaginary life, just like the one I had before.” Cinema will always be escapism to Sorrentino, which explains his maximalist style.

Of course, by 2021 standards, The Hand of God is also a terribly antiquated movie. It’s indulgent, male gaze-y and solipsistic, a bloated portrait of an artist as a young man only the Hollywood Foreign Press Association could love. Yet there is something magical in Sorrentino’s tender, flawed familial portrait that risks social taboos. I’d rather watch something beautiful and dumb vying for real emotional truth than the woke-est and most sanitized cinema, which only wants my approval. The Hand of God is a sprawling, gorgeous mess, but one you can’t look away from – and it might just break your heart.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.