VENICE – Italian director Paolo Sorrentino has profiled some powerful figures over the years, from real-life Italian premiers to fictional popes, as well as his adopted Rome in the Oscar-winner “The Great Beauty.” But in his newest release, Sorrentino turns the camera on his own personal tragedy.
Sorrentino’s autobiographical “The Hand of God,” which premieres Thursday at the Venice Film Festival, recounts how his otherwise normal childhood in 1980s Naples was upended by the sudden, accidental death of his parents and how a certain athlete had an unintentional role in saving his life.
He has spoken before about the trauma — both his parents died of carbon monoxide poisoning at the family’s ski house when Sorrentino was 16. But “The Hand of God” is the film Sorrentino felt he always had to make, and finally found the right moment after he turned 50 and the pandemic interrupted other projects.
“I thought it might be helpful, since I have always remained stuck at that age (16), at the pain of that age,” Sorrentino said in an interview Wednesday. “I never was able to budge from that.”
The film, though, tells a more universal story, of family, heroes and hope, and the coming-of-age of an awkward teen thrust suddenly into adulthood and forced to find his way alone.
“This is something that maybe is a minimal comfort to kids who have spent the last two years closed up at home, and maybe have an idea of the future that’s much more unstable than previous generations had,” he said.
Sorrentino has tapped his past before in more nuanced ways: Jude Law was an orphan, like Sorrentino, before being inexplicably elected to run the Catholic Church in “The Young Pope,” the lush, 10-episode television series that aired on HBO and Sky.
For the feature of his life, Sorrentino asked a member of his professional family, actor Toni Servillo, to play his father. In doing so, Sorrentino tapped a longtime collaborator and friend whose portrayal of the one-hit-wonder Jep Gambardella helped cement the 2014 foreign language Oscar for “The Great Beauty.”
“Every so often over the years we'd talk about it," Servillo said. A few years ago, Sorrentino “said the time had probably come to do the film and he asked me if I would be the father. And naturally I was flattered."
Noting that Sorrentino has frequently referred to him as his older brother, Servillo quipped: “I was promoted from older brother to father."
Sorrentino’s young alter ego is played by Italian newcomer Filippo Scotti, who acknowledged the rather odd situation of having to play his own director, without the benefit of having known him previously, much less as a teenager. But he said he trusted his instincts, and with Sorrentino’s direction, made the role his own.
“It was harder thinking about doing it than actually doing it,” he said.
The film’s other great star, and the inspiration for its title, is the late, great soccer legend Diego Maradona, whose arrival in Naples in a 1984 trade from Barcelona rewrote local club Napoli’s soccer history. It was while playing for his native Argentina in the 1986 World Cup that Maradona made the infamous “Hand of God” goal, punching the ball into the net to give Argentina a quarterfinal victory over England.
Sorrentino said Maradona’s arrival — “Maradona didn’t just arrive, he appeared” — was a bolt of energy for the team, for Naples and especially its young people.
“I can only interpret him in divine terms,” Sorrentino said. “There’s very little that’s human about him. Everything he did, everything that happened, has to do with the divine.”
And it was precisely during an April 5, 1987, Empoli-Napoli game that Maradona essentially saved the young Sorrentino’s life. Sorrentino, then 16, was supposed to have joined his parents that weekend at their ski house in central Italy, but stayed home so he could see Maradona play.
“I’m sure that there are a lot of people who believe, either for a series of coincidences or not, that Maradona saved their lives,” he said. “In my case, that is what happened.”
After a period of loss, grief and uncertainty about finding his way, the young Sorrentino decided he wanted to make films. And 20 years after his debut feature played at Venice — “One Man Up,” featuring a Neapolitan soccer star and none other than Servillo as a washed-up singer — Sorrentino has returned to the Lido with a Netflix film in the main competition.
“The great regret is that he can’t see it,” Sorrentino said, recalling Maradona’s 2020 death. “The only spectator who really interested me was him, though given he’s a divine figure, maybe he can see it from where he is.”