Maradona would never come.
So the Napoli faithful said. Maradona? One of the world’s greatest soccer players, sign with the relative backwater of Napoli?
Never happen. Never.
But Fabietto still hopes, still dreams. He’s young, after all—relatively unscarred by the cares of the world and the disappointments it can hand you, all tied up in a messy bow. Only Fabietto’s high-strung uncle, Alfredo, seems to believe Napoli has a shot at Maradona.
And if Maradona doesn’t come? “I’ll kill myself,” he says. Alfredo was never one for moderation.
But that could be said for Fabietto’s entire family. Every member seems filled with life—to the brim ’til it pours over the side. Mom Maria is a cackling practical joker with a talent for juggling. Dad Saverio may be (paradoxically) a banker and a communist, but he and Maria sometimes act like silly, lovestruck kids—whimsically whistling greetings to one another as a substitute for “I love you.” His brother (Marchino) wants to be an actor. His aunt (Patrizia) has a penchant for public nudity. And on it goes.
By those outsized Italian standards, Fabietto is pretty laconic. As his family barrels down the rapids, the teen’s along for the ride—forgoing friends and romances for schoolwork and, of course, watching soccer.
Yes, if Maradona would just come and play for Napoli, Fabietto’s world would be whole. Perfect. Because when you have such a little world, perfection doesn’t take much.
But Fabietto is on the cusp of adulthood. His world is about to get bigger, bolder, weirder and much, much sadder. And Maradona—as great a soccer player as he might be—won’t be enough to take away the hurt.
Fabietto’s family is certainly colorful, but we can’t question that the affection its members share with one another is real. For Fabietto, parents Maria and Saverio serve as his safe harbor—the family that protects him from life’s storms.
Maria and Saverio genuinely seem to love and care for each other, too—even in the midst of Saverio’s chronic infidelity (more on that later).
The movie’s title, The Hand of God, seems to serve two purposes here. One, it emphasizes Fabietto’s connection to Maradona, whose infamous hand ball goal in the 1986 World Cup became known as “The Hand of God.”
But it also has a deeper meaning—not explicitly spiritual, perhaps, but an acknowledgement that God or fate can seemingly destroy your life and, paradoxically, pave the way for a new, bright, future.
Spiritual themes nibble around the movie’s edges, sometimes devout, sometimes dismissive, and sometimes just weird.
Take the Little Monk. The figure itself is an age-old myth fairly unique to Naples. According to the myth, the Little Monk (Monaciello in Neapolitan) grants wishes to those who see him. At the beginning of the movie, Patrizia—Fabietto’s exhibitionist aunt—meets the Little Monk late one night (a meeting facilitated by a pretty creepy dude) and grants her the ability to become pregnant. (We learn later that she did, indeed, conceive.) The Little Monk returns at the movie’s end.
Naples is, like the rest of Italy, predominantly Catholic, and we see plenty of religious symbols throughout the film. After a tragedy strikes the family, a woman offers a strange form of consolation by quoting Dante’s Inferno—and the words he says are inscribed on the gates of hell: “Through me the way into the suffering city, through me the way to the eternal pain, through me the way that runs among the lost.” It’s an acknowledgment of the weight of loss and grief that Fabietto must bear.
When Maradona does sign with Napoli, Saverio buys Fabietto season tickets. “Thank you, God!” Fabietto exclaims. “Don’t thank God,” Saverio jokes. “I’m the one who got you season tickets!” A woman is described as looking “just like John Paul II.” A priest asks a passing Fabietto whether he wants to make a confession. Someone says they’re doing a “Witch Watch.” (A woman explains that she actually means Weight Watchers.)
Patrizia becomes an object of sexual desire for her nephews, Fabietto and Marchino. When she sunbathes nude during an extended family outing (and we see her naked form completely), all the men gape, and Fabietto and Marchino talk about that lusty view later that night, with Fabietto rating her beauty at “a billion” on a scale of 100. (But when Marchino asks whether Fabietto would rather have sex with her or have Maradona come to Napoli, Fabietto says “Maradona.”)
Fabietto sees her exposed breast during another scene, too (as does the audience), and Patrizia obviously goes bra-less much of the time. We see other female figures completely unclothed at a nude beach, as well: Fabietto strips off his own clothes and walks to the ocean—covering his genitals with his hands but exposing his rear to the camera.
Fabietto’s father advises his son to have sex quickly. “Take whatever comes,” he says. “Even a dog is OK.” Saverio describes how, as a child, he and other boys would visit a prostitute in a piazzetta (or small-town square). “For a little sugar or anything to eat, she’d kiss us on the mouth,” he tells his son. But since they were all different ages, they’d have to set up different sets of bricks so they could reach her face.
Fabietto loses his virginity during the film, to an elderly woman who tells him to imagine a girl he really likes during the act. We see his rear and her genital area, and she gives him explicit instructions before engaging in intercourse (which is brief and filled with sexual movements). She brags about her genitals.
As much as Maria and Saverio seem to be in love, Maria discovers that Saverio is having an affair—apparently with a long-standing lover whom Maria thought Saverio had said goodbye to years before. Maria throws Saverio out of the house, but she admits to Fabietto that she’ll “let him come home in a few days.” (And she does.) We later hear that Saverio kept his mistress so long because the two had a son together, who’s 8 years old when Fabietto learns about it.
Men and women both wear bathing suits (often bikinis). A man in Fabietto’s apartment complex draws pictures of the male anatomy to cheer people up. Someone lecherously grabs Patrizia’s rear end. People are repeatedly described as prostitutes. Fabietto’s brother passionately kisses his girlfriend in a scene or two. A woman in a red dress sits in a waiting room and smokes sultrily as a number of men surrounding her and ogle.
A man takes a bath (we see him sitting in the tub, with the water covering his privates) as a woman (who displays a great deal of cleavage) washes him sensually, hoping to arouse him. A film director declares that conflict is everything in a relationship. “Without conflict, it’s just sex,” he says. “And sex is useless.” He also tells Fabietto that “those without courage don’t sleep with beautiful women.”
There’s a lewd reference to sausage and a potential double entendre regarding someone’s anatomy. A seductively dressed woman auditions for a movie by using a hula hoop. Dozens of pictures of actresses—some of whom are sultrily dressed—cover a desk. A woman wears a lacy nightgown.
Patrizia and her husband get into a fight after she comes home late (and claims to have seen the Little Monk). Her husband doesn’t believe her and assumes she’s been unfaithful—perhaps having sex for cash—and chases her into a bedroom, telling her, “I’ll bash your head in!” We later see her with her nose bleeding.
Later, Patrizia and Fabietto discuss that evening: She and her husband had sex later that night, and she got pregnant. But they fought again (we don’t hear the details), and as a result she had a miscarriage. She had hoped for a baby for a long time, and the miscarriage was too much. She eventually demanded that her husband take her to a psychiatric ward “or I’ll kill myself.”
Someone punches and kicks another person at a nightclub. An actress holds a fake severed head during a performance. An old woman gets beaten by members of her family.
When Maria and Saverio move into their newly-built dream house, Maria arranges to have a man dress up as a bear to scare her husband. The ruse works, and it nearly Gives Saverio a heart attack.
[Spoiler Warning] Maria and Saverio both die from carbon monoxide poisoning that evening. When Fabietto and his brothers arrive at the hospital, the doctor refuses to let Fabietto see them. Fabietto responds with violence—overturning chairs and smashing bottles. Eventually, he has to be restrained.
In its English translation, this Italian movie imports 17 f-words and 19 s-words. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “crap,” “d–n,” “h—,” “p-ssed,” “p-ssy” and other lewd words describing genetalia. God’s name is misused three times, and Jesus’ name is abused once. And, of course, those are just the words translated for English speakers. If you speak Italian, you might hear others.
Several characters smoke (one suggests that smoking a cigarette is “the best part of sex”), and almost everyone drinks wine with meals. Fabietto’s brother tells him that he wants to enjoy being happy and reckless, which includes “getting high.” Patrizia says that she turned to pills after her miscarriage. Fabietto and a new friend go out for a beer or two.
Fabietto meets and hangs out with a cigarette smuggler for a bit. We see the smuggler outrun a police boat with his. One of Fabietto’s relatives is also engaged in illegal activity. Both of these lawbreakers wind up going to prison. Saverio brags that his family are communists. Some of Maria’s jokes can feel pretty mean.
In 2019, the Korean film Parasite became the first foreign-language film to win an Oscar for Best Picture, putting an exclamation point on a trend we’ve seen for a few years now: Foreign movies and television shows have gone mainstream. We owe some of that popularity to Netflix and other streaming services, which have introduced English-speaking audiences to an array of international stories.
Now, for 2021’s Oscar derby, Netflix has pushed all of its foreign-language chips on The Hand of God—hoping not just for a foreign-language trophy, but perhaps a Best Picture nod, too.
I think Netflix will be disappointed.
Both it and Parasite share, broadly, a theme or two. They both blend comedy and drama in unexpected ways, and both could be classified as, in a way, coming-of-age tales.
But while Parasite translated surprisingly well to a Western audience (in spite of its reams of content issues), The Hand of God is a harder sell. It feels very much a product of its place, and the sprawling family it introduces us to can be difficult to keep track of.
But the movie’s content issues are by far The Hand of God’s biggest drawback.
European audiences are notoriously more comfortable with nudity than American ones, and that’s pretty obvious here. Viewers will see a great deal sexual content, and sometimes it can feel as though physical intimacy is wholly divorced from emotional connection. Fabietto’s own father practically shoves the teen into the streets to look for a meaningless sexual encounter.
Foul language can be almost as gleefully unleashed, with characters glorying in a matriarch’s legendarily foul mouth. People smoke like broken Yugos.
The Hand of God is loosely based on the coming-of-age recollections of its Oscar-winning director, Paolo Sorrentino. It can be funny, tragic and sometimes surprisingly moving. But few parents that I know would want their own children to experience such a transition from childhood to adulthood. And most families, I suspect, would be better served by shaking off this Hand.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.