‘Hand of God’: Paolo Sorrentino Says He Looked Back to Move Forward

To shoot “The Hand of God,” Paolo Sorrentino returned to his roots and did a lot of things backwards.

“After 20 years of filmmaking I was perhaps a bit tired of the spot I was in,” he says. So in tackling the autobiographical story — which brought him back to his native Naples two decades after his debut “L’Uomo in Più” — he decided to proceed differently.

“Visually this film is the opposite of my other films,” Sorrentino notes, pointing out that in his other works, such as “The Great Beauty” and “Youth,” it was the choice of settings — the city of Rome and the Swiss Alps, respectively — and also the light, that had to “bend to an aesthetic idea that I had in mind.”

But in “Hand of God” “it’s exactly the reverse,” he says. “It’s the aesthetic aspects that had to adapt to the locations,” which were dictated by the fact that they were “the [real] locations of my adolescence and the memory of my adolescence.

“My home was my home,” Sorrentino notes, adding that “the garden and the parking lot were the [places] where I really lived. I didn’t pick the locations; so instead I chose an aesthetic that took its cue from them.”

Sorrentino was raised in the Vomero quarter of Naples, on a hill overlooking the sprawling port city. The apartment in which he grew up is on the fourth floor of the building where they shot — but that had been modified so they used an unrenovated fifth floor apartment. It had “the same tiles, the same doors,” he recalls, as his childhood home.

Production designer Carmine Guarino, who is also from Naples and had previously worked with Sorrentino as an assistant production designer on “Il Divo,” says Sorrentino told the team that they were making a stripped-down film “in which the main things that need to surface are the feelings and the narrative.”

Sorrentino asked for a rather simple set design where “the colors and textures that we had to reconstruct were not invasive, but just had to support the narrative,” he says.

Working from memory, the director knew exactly what he wanted in the most minute details. Guarino and his team had to sift through 1,000 samples of wallpaper “until we got the right color, or at least the right tone to reconstruct that setting,” since “Paolo was very precise in his recollections,” he says.

Toni Servillo and Filippo Scotti in “Hand of God” Courtesy of Gianni Fiorito

A key part of Sorrentino’s home was his room for which the nautical furniture was custom-made, while the Napoli soccer team memorabilia and posters had to be either found or meticulously reconstructed to reflect a “before and after” the pivotal moment when star player Diego Maradona joined the club.

“It was important that it should be clear that Maradona had become a hero for him,” says Guarino, and also that Sorrentino had a passion for music, reflected in posters from concerts, including a poster from a 1982 Rolling Stones concert in Naples’ San Paolo stadium, and that his room be “filled with music cassettes.”

As for the cinematography, in his previous films, “Paolo had always chased hyperbole with his camera movements to approach a reality that intrigued him but that he didn’t really know that well,” says “Hand of God” lenser Daria D’Antonio, also a native Neapolitan, who had previously worked as an assistant DP on many of Sorrentino’s pics.

But in approaching a story that he knew very well “and that was also painful for him to face,” the camera is, for the most part — aside from the opening aerial shot over the bay of Naples, and a few other instances — mostly fixed. The fact that D’Antonio relied mainly on medium-long shots, with very few close-ups, “gives space to the narrative,” she says. It also marks “a radical change for Paolo in terms of how the film was shot,” underlines D’Antonio, who adds: “I don’t know if he will continue down this path, but it was right for this film.”

Even in the film’s lighting there isn’t much artifice except where it was deemed necessary. “In general there is plenty of diegetic light; it’s all very sober,” she says. The lighting and the mostly fixed camera helped during many of the scenes featuring the film’s protagonist Fabietto Schisa, playing a fictional, younger Sorrentino, played by Filippo Scotti, who at the time of shooting was 21.

“With such a young actor even on my part I didn’t want to make him feel ill at ease,” says D’Antonio, who underlines how Sorrentino’s naturalistic approach to the mise-en-scene helped Scotti bring out the nuances of his character’s inner pain and joy.

“The Hand of God” was shot with a Red Monstro digital camera, with which Sorrentino had filmed before. But D’Antonio and Sorrentino did make a new choice when it came to lenses, with Sorrentino opting for the first time for large format, specifically the ARRI Signature lenses designed by Roger Deakins, “because we wanted the image to be sharp with good details, but at the same time soft,” says D’Antonio.

Sorrentino used a subdued color palette for the film’s costumes even though fashions in the 1980s were pretty loud, with the exception of the scene depicting an audition for a Federico Fellini film, and of the film’s opening scenes.

Those opening scenes introduce his beloved and beautiful aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), who is approached by a man claiming to be San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. He pulls up in a vintage Rolls Royce and takes her to see a local legend, known as the Little Monk, who supposedly gives her the ability to conceive a child.

This “dreamlike premise,” as Sorrentino calls it, is actually a ploy to “almost to trick the spectators who could think they are about to see a dreamlike film in which things aren’t clear,” he says.

“Instead you learn quite soon that this sort of dream is just the mental ravings of the aunt,” Sorrentino explains. “And then you then go from there to reality.”