The extended family they occupy is a noisy, caustic, sometimes violent clan. A genealogical chart is not supplied: The audience is tossed into the domestic scrum like a new spouse or a country cousin, to make sense of things as they happen. We are invited to a sprawling luncheon full of bad manners, brutal teasing and useless advice. Aunt Patrizia stretches out naked on the deck of a boat. A foul-tempered matriarch in a fur coat bites into a ball of mozzarella as if it were the apple in the Garden of Eden.
Given this background, how could Fabietto not grow up to make movies? His nuclear family is equally chaotic, though less garishly dysfunctional than some of the collateral branches. His mother, Maria (the wonderful Teresa Saponangelo), is adept at juggling oranges and playing pranks. (One of them involves another Italian cinematic notable, Franco Zeffirelli, whose assistant Maria impersonates on the phone.) Her husband, Saverio (Toni Servillo, a fixture of the Sorrentino cinematic universe), works at the Bank of Naples, though he proudly calls himself a communist. As a matter of ideological principle, he refuses to buy a television with a remote control.
Fabietto’s brother, Marchino (Marlon Joubert), is an aspiring actor until an audition with Fellini, who finds his face “too conventional.” Sorrentino shares Fellini’s taste for odd, sometimes grotesque human faces and physiques. His most Felliniesque quality, though, may be his commitment to emotional anarchy. Feelings don’t come in neat packages or move in straight lines. Anguish and amusement are neighbors, sometimes even synonyms. Delight swerves into pain. Sarcasm gives way suddenly to earnest sentiment.
The disharmony in the Schisa household is comically banal — an all-but-unseen sister monopolizes the bathroom; an aristocratic landlady bangs on the ceiling with a broom — until Saverio’s infidelity cranks it up to melodrama. And then, almost exactly halfway through the film, something terrible happens, a hammer-blow of fate that transforms the family, Fabietto and “The Hand of God” itself.
The title, by the way, refers not to theology but to the history of soccer. When Sorrentino’s Neapolitans are not bickering, gossiping or ogling one another, they are consumed with the question of whether the great Argentine midfielder Diego Maradona will come play for the city’s team. When he does, it seems like a miracle, and glimpses of him on the field or on television are like small eruptions of magic — especially the notorious hand-assisted goal in the 1986 World Cup that Maradona attributed to divine intervention.
Fabietto is less a fairy-tale prince than an apprentice sorcerer. Scotti, graceful and alert, is a quiet presence but not a passive one. The shift in Fabietto’s perspective from no-longer-boy to almost-man is the subtlest achievement in a film that isn’t much interested in subtlety.