Those stirrings — sports, sex and cinema; filial loyalty; familial separation; a fledgling’s tentative sense of self — are what propel “The Hand of God,” which soccer fans will recognize as a nod to Maradona’s famous goal during the 1986 World Cup match, in which his hand fouled the ball, unobserved by referees. (“A little with the head of Maradona, a little with the hand of God,” he quipped afterward.) The title also refers to the fickle and, at a critical juncture, cruel twists of fate that condition Fabie’s life.
Because so many of those moments tack closely to Sorrentino’s own experience, audiences might expect “The Hand of God” to be a visceral, immersive plunge into sense memory. There are vivid moments, to be sure, especially when Fabie is spending time with his raucous extended family, a teasing, chattering conglomeration of Epicureans, good sports, comedians and ne’er-do-wells. The most appealing of the lot is Fabie’s mother Mari, whose juggling talent and penchant for practical jokes make her the life of the party — until the latter goes a little too far. Touchingly portrayed by Teresa Saponangelo, Mari shares a warm, companionable relationship with Fabie’s father Saverio (Sorrentino rep player Toni Servillo), but even the whistles they share as a secret language turn out to be hiding a secret that will shock Fabie in time.
Best known for his extravagant visuals and production values, Sorrentino simplifies his style for “The Hand of God,” in which he favors long, languid takes and pacing that, by the second half of the film, feels less poetic than tedious. Structured as a series of pungent episodes, the story keeps everyone at arm’s length, including Fabie himself. Although he shares a bedroom with his brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert), we never see their sister Daniela, who is constantly sequestered in the bathroom — clearly meant as a joke, but one that gets more tiresome as Fabie ambles along his somewhat aimless path.
That path, inevitable, includes movies, which figure prominently in “The Hand of God,” from a casting session of eccentrics and oddballs for Fellini’s latest film to an anecdote involving Franco Zeffirelli. It’s telling that Fabie’s first inkling of what it means to be a director comes when he observes Fellini culling the head shots of pretty actresses It’s been said that cinema is an art form predicated on men watching beautiful women, an ethos Sorrentino uncritically takes to heart. “Looking is all I know how to do,” Fabie tells the filmmaker Antonio Capuano (Ciro Carpano), Sorrentino’s real-life mentor, here depicted as an arrogant, histrionic auteur.
In the course of the overlong, overindulgent “Hand of God,” it sometimes seems that looking is still what Sorrentino does best: He has an instinctive, often exacting eye, but not necessarily a kind one, such as when he stages an early scene involving Fabie’s voluptuous aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri) with a breast vulnerably — and, for him, erotically — exposed.
While Sorrentino assembles his players over the first hour of “The Hand of God,” things seem to be building to a promising conclusion; the turning point, when it comes, is appropriately shocking. But over the next hour, the encounters and coincidences that clearly mean so much to him simply happen — they don’t land with palpable impact. The film loses momentum and the specifics of the filmmaker’s youthful longing, grief and self-discovery feel solipsistic rather than universal. For all its beauty and poignancy, “The Hand of God” suffers from a strange paradox: It goes on too long but somehow doesn’t go far enough.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema; available Dec. 15 on Netflix. Contains sexual material, strong language, some graphic nudity and brief drug use. In Italian with subtitles. 130 minutes.