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'The Hand of God' review: Deeply affecting coming-of-age story

Filippo Scotti in "The Hand of God."

Filippo Scotti in "The Hand of God."   Credit: Netflix/Gianni Fiorito

MOVIE "The Hand of God"

WHERE Streaming on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino writes and directs "The Hand of God," an autobiographical story of a teenager named Fabietto (Filippo Scotti) growing up in Naples during the 1980s.

Fabietto spends these formative years planning to study philosophy in college, watching the soccer legend Diego Maradona play for Napoli and socializing with his mother Maria (Teresa Saponangelo), father Saverio (Toni Servillo), brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert) and large extended family, including an aunt named Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri) who fascinates him.

Tragedy compels Fabietto to reassess everything over the course of the movie from the Oscar-winning Sorrentino ("The Great Beauty"), which is now streaming on Netflix (in Italian, with English subtitles). It's on this year's shortlist of 15 movies eligible to receive nominations for Best International Feature Film at the upcoming Academy Awards.

MY SAY "The Hand of God" finds a teenager discovering himself and being set on a path toward his future. But it distinguishes itself from the plethora of coming-of-age narratives thanks to the ways in which the filmmaker incorporates the rich visual landscape of the Neapolitan region into this formative story.

Sorrentino establishes the tone at the start: a helicopter shot, captured in a single take, that soars over the water, pans alongside a car on a seaside road and across the buildings that dot the landscape, before darting back out to sea as the sound drops out.

The title of the movie refers to a famous Maradona quote, about a goal that he scored during the 1986 World Cup, but with this opening image Sorrentino makes it clear that it has as much to do with the larger forces that will shape Fabietto's story and are forever at play in our own.

So the picture plays somewhere above and beyond reality, while being informed by painstakingly human experiences. We never see an older Fabietto, presumably a successful film director, but it's clear that the movie presents his youth as he remembers it decades later.

It's comprised of impressionistic memories of languid summer days, of a big family with outsized personality types. The whole city seems to gather on their balconies to watch Maradona score goals. A surreal evening trip to the island of Capri includes a nighttime swim in the Blue Grotto.

Fabietto gets his first introductions to filmmaking: Marchino brings him to auditions, where he's surrounded by idiosyncratic figures, and he wanders onto a set where a commotion of frenzied activity unfolds below a person suspended upside down in midair.

There's joy and warmth in so much of this, but also a tremendous sadness. This life exists only as a memory now. As tragedy strikes and time marches on, a new reality sets in: For Fabietto, there will be no more happy days in the sun.

But there's always a future. And there's the divine gift offered by the movies: allowing us to return to the places we remember, to bring back those we have loved and lost.

BOTTOM LINE This is a deeply affecting coming-of-age story that doubles as a movie about the movies themselves.

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