In the tradition of films like François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Federico Fellini’s Amarcord and Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, director Paolo Sorrentino turns the lens on himself to explore his own youth on the screen in the new film The Hand of God. The Neapolitan-set drama takes place in the late 1980s and centers on Fabietto (Filippo Scotti), a surrogate for the maestro himself who lives through triumph and tragedy alike on the road to discovering what will be his undying passion: the cinema.
It’s a tricky thing, burrowing so deeply into oneself for drama, particularly for a filmmaker. How will the many indelible memories be presented visually? Is utmost fidelity to the truth important, or might something a touch interpretive be more penetrative? The answer for Sorrentino, the filmmaker behind Oscar winner The Great Beauty, was a bit of both, but in cinematographer Daria D’Antonio, he had another well to draw from: a colleague who also spent her youth in Naples.
That shared experience is why D’Antonio thinks the director tapped her to lead his camera department for the first time. She had worked with Sorrentino on many projects under DP Luca Bigazzi for years, and of course has served as DP in her own right on many other productions. But this was the first time she would take the reins on Sorrentino’s visuals herself.
“We were very clear on what we didn’t want the film to be, in terms of a specific representation of the time,” D’Antonio explains. “I asked Paolo questions about what he remembered of the apartment that he lived in, in terms of the moods of the environment, and he described that. But I also shared my own memory of my youth and my family in those years and he drew from that as well. We looked at his photographs and mine for reference and we were able to just live again in that time.”
One idea Sorrentino, D’Antonio and the art department settled on was to use softer, pale colors to evoke a sense of memory, like a souvenir from a long-forgotten adventure. Early in the film, the colors are brighter, situating Fabietto in happier times. As the complexities of life progress and, eventually, tragedy strikes, that brightness dims.
They also paid careful mind to Fabietto’s perspective and gaze—a self-described observer of life, he has a way of looking at reality that D’Antonio says is very peculiar for a boy of his age. The film is the portrait of an artist as a young man, so how Fabietto absorbs the world around him is crucial to his eventual growth into a filmmaker who will no doubt one day harness his lived experiences for vibrant explorations on the screen.
One standout sequence comes late in The Hand of God’s second act, after Fabietto has endured the loss of his parents and is continuing along the unsteady track out of young adulthood. A soft rapping from above signals the lure of Baroness Focale, the stately older upstairs neighbor and family friend he’s known much of his life. It’s a beck and call, an invitation into a sexual encounter. But it’s treated as metaphorical closure for a young man who desperately needs to leave some things behind so he can move forward—including his virginity. “It’s time to look to the future,” the Baroness says to him.
The scene is mysterious, gorgeously lit, otherworldly, built with a strikingly different visual vocabulary from the rest of the film. As D’Antonio puts it, the sequence propels Fabietto into a dimension that is at the same time surreal and somehow romantic.
“The most important thing for me was that the atmosphere surrounding the Baroness—despite the oddness of the situation—was not only sinister, but also had a form of warmth, and was sensual and tender and somehow reassuring for Fabietto in that key turning point of his growth,” D’Antonio says. “With the art department we had agreed on the color and type of lamps present in the apartment, and I liked the idea of the light moving, starting from the entrance, crossing into the restlessness of her corridor and, eventually, into the glitter of the bedroom.”
That idea of moving forward is ultimately echoed once more in the film’s final moments. Aboard a train to Rome, Fabietto peers out the window and spots a young boy waving goodbye—his childhood bidding him adieu. But it’s Sorrentino and D’Antonio’s closing image that puts a thematic bow on the story. The credits roll over Fabietto’s satisfied smile and the countryside reflected in the window flashes past him, as he, indeed, looks to the future.
“Fabietto becomes the pillar around which his life is revolving in that moment,” D’Antonio says. “He’s able to stand still and let all the rest flow, as the past goes by.”