In April 1987, Paolo Sorrentino’s parents left Naples for a weekend gateway in Roccaraso, Abruzzo. The future Oscar winner was meant to come along, but turned down the invite on account of a far juicier plan: a die-hard Napoli fan, his football team was to play an away match against Empoli, which meant a chance for the lad to see his hero, Greatest Player ff All Time Diego Armando Maradona, dispense his genius on the pitch. As it turned out, Sorrentino’s parents never made it back—they died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty heater, and the boy was left an orphan. He was only sixteen. “It was Maradona,” a relative exclaims in the director’s latest and most personal project to date, The Hand of God: “He saved you!” A portrait of the filmmaker as an adolescent, the film traces a sentimental and artistic education following stand-in Fabietto (Filippo Scotti), a high-schooler trying to figure things out whilst grieving an unspeakable loss.
It may not be Sorrentino’s best (vying for that title, in my book, is a three-way race between Il Divo, The Great Beauty, and the early gem The Consequences of Love), but it is by far his funniest—nothing short of surprising considering the harrowing material. That’s because the script, penned by Sorrentino, gracefully avoids the pitfalls of traditional autobiography. Sure, this is a story drenched in sorrow, but The Hand of God never wholly tips into self-pity, hyperboles, or compassion, courtesy of a circus of relatives and eccentrics that—in the film’s early, most lilting moments—feel plucked out of Fellini’s Amarcord (a director that’s haunted and inspired Sorrentino’s oeuvre for quite some time, and here finally makes an appearance—if only through his melodious, child-like voice). There’s an old cantankerous aunt throwing insults at the entire family, Luisa Ranieri’s promiscuous, Venus-esque aunt Patrizia (picture a mix between Anita Ekberg and 8 1/2’s Saraghina), a new relative that speaks through a mic, a clan of next-door neighbors that span blue bloods and clueless Northerners. And then of course there’s Toni Servillo (Fabietto’s father, Saverio) and Teresa Saponangelo (his mother, Maria): The Hand of God may belong to the boy, but they are the real showstoppers here, their gags and chemistry giving way to some of the film’s most delightful scenes (one of them, a prank on a neighbor praying for a role in a Zeffirelli production, is possibly the finest).
If The Great Beauty was a riff on La dolce vita and Youth one on 8 1/2, it’s curious to see Sorrentino’s cribbing of Fellini’s cinema proceed backwards. Watching Fabietto, I thought back to Moraldo, the brooding lad from I Vitelloni to whom Fellini would dedicate an unfinished project, Moraldo Va in Città, the missing link between those daydreamers frittering their best years in Rimini and Marcello Mastroianni’s disenchanted journalist in La dolce vita. Like I Vitelloni, The Hand of God ends with a shot of Fabietto aboard a train, but unlike Fellini’s coming-of-age, this one gestures at a kind of reconciliation between boy and hometown. It’s a snapshot of Fabietto and his Naples, one that—luckily—never morphs into a Valentine to The City, but treats the urban setting as a cauldron of fables, an endless source of solace and inspiration. Of all things, it reminded me of the last chapter of Orhan Pamuk’s 2003 memoir Istanbul, in which the Nobel-winning writer, then still an architecture student, suddenly realizes two things: that is vocation is storytelling, and that his future is indissolubly tied to the city he was born in. In a wistful coda, Fabio happens into a local hotshot director, the real-life Antonio Capuano (with whom twenty-something Sorrentino would write the 1998 The Dust of Naples). I suspect there’ll be some who will view this as a kind of mythologizing; truth be told, once man and lad walk down to the seashore at the crack of dawn, the exchanges turn the filmmaker into a Virgil-like figure, and Fabietto his Dante struggling to find a Voice). But that’s the fine line The Hand of Good is treading, and for the most part, does so with ample candor: that liminal space between myths and personal anecdotes, between sport and art, grief and redemption.
From one family portrait to another: browsing the festival’s gargantuan program ahead of my journey to the Lido, I was thrilled to see Ricky D’Ambrose’s name among the directors unveiling new works in the Biennale Cinema lineup, a sidebar designed to showcase (and finance) first and second features. Part of what made D’Ambrose’s 2018 debut Notes on an Appearance so riveting was its playful and fragmentary bricolage narrative, where static shots of postcards, paintings, newspapers, and other artefacts shared as much space and power as the young protagonists D’Ambrose trailed after. His latest, The Cathedral, refines and expands that approach toward new, nostalgic heights. The film offers a chronicle of a nuclear family’s disintegration across two decades, as seen and experienced by the couple’s child. It starts off by laying out a family tree, an invisible narrator introducing us to the Damrosh, a suburban trio made up of Richard (Brian d'Arcy James), Lydia (Monica Barbaro), and their son Jesse (played by Robert Levey II as a tween and William Bednar-Carter at seventeen). A pantheon of friends and relatives orbits around them—I’ll admit that the who’s who might be hard to process at first—but The Cathedral gradually singles out Jesse as its protagonist, to whom it offers, as Sorrentino did with Fabietto, a kind of Künstlerroman. We watch Richard and Lydia come together and fall apart, their marriage buckling under the weight of financial duress and internecine feuds, and Jesse watches with us, processing and finally turning those traumas into a catalyst for his artistic initiation.
When trying to describe D’Ambrose’s films, here as in Notes, I find myself rubbing my thumb over my index, the way I may test the edge of an old letter or a dusty postcard. There is in The Cathedral a gorgeous, near-reverential attention to textures and details: the wallpapers plastering the Damrosh’s house, a New York State road atlas, a lock of Jesse’s hair, a TV commercial for Kodak (“Which films will you choose for your baby?”), and then again toys, leftover food, a copy of Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” It’s a restless, sprawling cache, kind of how I’d imagine Georges Perec’s delirious catalogues would look like if brought to the screen; a sort of family detritus, an accumulation of personal histories that makes watching The Cathedral akin to unearthing a private black box (in that, D’Ambrose’s cinema strikes me as a not-so-distant cousin of Sofia Bohdanowicz’s, another filmmaker deeply invested in personal archaeologies). Sure enough, this is not D’Ambrose’s real family—though Jesse’s journey as budding cineaste echoes the director’s own—but the archive feels lived in, authentic, and that accounts for the sense of longing transpiring from each and every frame.
Consider the film’s grammar: shot by Barton Cortright in a muted, almost color-scrubbed palette, The Cathedral favors static compositions interspersed with reverse tracking shots. Parsimoniously used, I like to think of these movements as incursions from the future, a camera traveling through time and space. David Lowery has served as executive producer, and it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to think of The Cathedral as a Ghost Story of its own: a study of absence, of empty rooms, and the memories we salvage from oblivion.
A case of festival serendipity, the official competition title I caught next offered another study of a dysfunctional family. Five years after her 2016 The Bad Batch, Ana Lily Amirpour returned to the Lido with Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon. The plot: a girl with supernatural talents (the eponymous heroine, played by Burning’s Jeon Jong-seo) has spent the past twelve years locked in a high-security mental asylum when she suddenly awakens from her slumber and wreaks havoc in the damp streets of New Orleans. Along the journey, she’ll bump into a smattering of outcasts, including single mother and pole-dancer Bonnie (Kate Hudson) and her eleven-year-old child Charlie (Evan Whitten). According to her medical records, Mona suffers from some acute schizophrenia, but when a blood moon rises, she develops some hypnotic superpowers that allow her to take over other people’s motor functions, and turn them into unwilling puppets. No wonder Bonnie is so eager to befriend the girl and exploit her gifts, forcing patrons of the strip club she works at to drown her in cash, and tricking others to do the same outside ATMs. Only after Mona’s bond with the neglected Charlie grows stronger does she realize she’s being used, and the film morphs into an E.T.-like fable, with the kid determined to set his friend free.
Now with three features to her name, Amirpour shows a knack for the grinding and merging of different genres. Her promising 2014 debut, the monochrome A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, was a vampire western; her sophomore, the far less impressive The Bad Batch, a cannibal romance. Mona Lisa is no doubt superior to its predecessor, but it doesn’t quite match the originality and inventiveness of Amirpour’s first. Which is not to suggest the film doesn’t have its moments of unhinged, joyous madness. Near-mute, Mona pads around the French Quarter like a hungry newborn, barefoot and helplessly lost, and for long chunks Amirpour relishes in chronicling her reintegration into the world the way Stranger Things did with Eleven (incidentally, the two share a predilection for junk food, our protagonist here guzzling packs of Cheese Puffos corn snacks). All along, she’s hunted by officer Harold (Craig Robinson), who early into the chase pays a visit to a fortune teller. “You don’t pick voodoo,” he’s told, “voodoo picks you.” And there’s ample, glowing schadenfreude in seeing the schmucks Mona picks in her body-controlling spree succumb to a much-deserved demise. So why is it that Mona Lisa felt so slight, and only intermittently able to live up to the frenzy those first scenes promise?
It’s not the formulaic scaffolding I take issues with, nor the platitudes churned out along the ride (“you can’t fix yourself by hurting other people,” Harold chides Mona halfway through; “people are not so easy to like,” she retorts). It’s the way Amirpour’s script doesn’t seem to know how to handle the relationship between Bonnie and Charles, which is crucial to make sense of the boy’s alienation toward his own family and his urge to start one of his own, and which Amirpour sketches a little too hastily. It’s a worry that extends to all the other drifters she summons along the way, hardly ever coming across as well-rounded figures. Then again, characterization doesn’t really seem to be the film’s concern. Perhaps Mona Lisa is best experienced for what it is: a moody, neon-slick fantasy that’s as easy to savor as it is to forget.