Editors note: When we think of Robert De Niro and Italy, it’s easiest to focus on the Sicilian town of Corleone, because of his Oscar-winning turn in The Godfather: Part II. But De Niro wanted to focus on Naples, which director Paolo Sorrentino brought to life in The Hand of God. De Niro was so moved, he wrote a guest column for Deadline on why the film touched him so dearly.
There are so many terrific things about The Hand of God, Paolo Sorrentino’s rich coming-of-age story. It’s an intensely personal film. Sorrentino, who wrote as well as directed, created his surrogate Fabietto from his own DNA and experiences, and sets the film in his native Naples.
Fabietto’s most prominent co-star isn’t one of the marvelous cast, but rather the city itself. You share Sorrentino’s love for Napoli in the opening beauty shots of an aerial approach over the Gulf of Naples to the city. And see it in his affection for the variety of characters: quirky, often very funny, bigger than life, passionate (by which I mean loud), full of joy and hope. I’ve only been to Naples a few times, but to me this movie feels distinctly Neapolitan in the way that many of Marty Scorsese’s pictures (Wolf of Wall Street, Bringing Out the Dead, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, etc.) and many of Woody Allen’s films (Annie Hall, Broadway Danny Rose, Manhattan, etc.) feel essentially New York City. In so many ways, Naples reminds me of the Italian-American New York I love.
The southern Italy location serves Sorrentino’s storytelling well. He says, “Reality is just the starting point for a story. It has to be reinvented. Here in Naples, we have a fun way of reinventing memories.” Despite the tragedy that is at the literal center of the film, The Hand of God overflows with fun. Scenes like the extended family’s al fresco lunch and the subsequent boat outing are so charming and funny. And while the central story is Fabietto being ripped from his precarious youth and dragged to a premature and unwelcome adulthood, the stories along the way are priceless. For example, there’s Armà, the cigarette smuggler/small-time hood/violent hooligan/supportive friend and ultimately jail bird; outlandish, yes, but completely believable to me because of my own experiences in New York City as a kid.
And there’s Capuano (the real Antonio Capuano, famous Neapolitan director, became mentor to the young Sorrentino). In a wonderful scene near the end of The Hand of God, Fabietto pleads with Capuano to give him direction. Capuano alternately questions him and berates him, their voices rising, almost musically. It feels like a scene from a grand opera performance. Fabietto tells him, “I don’t like reality anymore. Reality is lousy. That’s why I want to make films.” He wants to go to Rome to break into movies. Capuano yells at him, “Only assholes go to Rome! Do you know how many stories there are in this city … Look! … Is it possible this city doesn’t inspire you at all? … Got a story to tell? Find the guts to tell it! … Spit it out!”
Fabietto goes to Rome anyway. As the film ends, he’s on his way. And now – 35 years later – Sorrentino is back in Napoli by The Hand of God. All right. Thank you very much, Paolo!