Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This is the official submission from Italy to the 94th Academy Awards for Best International Feature. It got the nomination. Paolo Sorrentino is the writer and director. Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013) was also nominated at the 86th Academy Awards. The Great Beauty in fact won Best International Feature née Best Foreign Language Film. Once a filmmaker is recognized like that, he or she tends to be recognized again, even for films that might not warrant it. Ostensibly, this film is in line with several recent films that are about middle-age filmmakers looking back at their childhoods, often times emphasizing their love of cinema and filmmaking. This year, Kenneth Branagh received multiple nominations for Belfast (2021), which is a semi-autobiographical look at his youth. Alfonso Cuarón did a similar thing at the 91st Academy Awards for Roma (2018).
Despite Cuarón’s 2018 title, his film had nothing to do with the Italian city of the same name. Yet, this film is very much about the Italian city in which it’s set, and that city is Naples. Sorrentino opens with a helicopter shot, sweeping over all of Naples, showing the city for all its glory. As the film progresses, Sorrentino makes great use of the various locations in that city and boasting its real-life properties, depicting how beautiful in geography and architecture it is. Sorrentino’s cinematography helps with that boasting to make this film appear rather sumptuous. On a purely aesthetic level, the look of this film makes it worthy of its Oscar nomination.
This film could be considered an ode to Italian cinema, a throwback as it were. It could also be considered just an example of what Italian cinema has been or currently still is. For the first half, for example, this film feels like one made by Federico Fellini who does get name-checked here. Before Cuarón, Fellini did his own Roma (1972), which has a structure or format that Sorrentino very much copies. Some scenes or ideas for scenes even feel lifted from that 1972 flick. Fellini’s Amarcord (1973) also feels like a touchstone or inspiration for Sorrentino’s work here.
Filippo Scotti stars as Fabietto Schisa, an Italian teenager living in Naples some time in the 1980’s. Of course, we know it’s the 80’s based on the cars and fashion, but, like the protagonist in Flee (2021), the other nominated film in Best International Feature, Fabietto carries a Walkman that plays music cassettes everywhere he goes. A character references Prince Charles and Diana’s wedding, which occurred in 1981. There are also a lot of people, including Fabietto, who watch European football or soccer and obsess over a player named Diego Maradona who was active mainly in the 1980’s and who did something in 1986 specifically that gives this film its title.
The film doesn’t start with Fabietto though. It starts with another member of Fabietto’s family, but the first half of the film is really about immersing us in Fabietto’s world and getting to know his various family members. We get vignettes into their lives, and it’s one vignette after another with no real narrative cohesion. It all just feels random in that first hour, which is how those aforementioned Fellini films also felt. It’s entertaining though because Fabietto’s family is funny, rowdy, strange and at times problematic, but it’s probably not unlike most families, particularly Italian ones.
Despite being a large and loud bunch that’s at various times all over and on top of each other, this film in several ways feels like it’s about loneliness and how some people, even in a large family, can feel isolated. Such is the case for Fabietto and such is the case for his aunt Patrizia, played by Luisa Ranieri, with whom the film starts. Fabietto is a young attractive boy but he doesn’t seem to have any friends. Others constantly ask if he has a girlfriend and when he’s going to lose his virginity. He also has this fascination with older people, particularly his aunt Patrizia. He even looks at her with lust in his eyes because she’s so beautiful but also because she’s apt to expose her naked body around him. Yet, she exposes her unclothed form around all the family members, so Fabietto isn’t the only one with a wayward eye toward her. With Fabietto, however, as well as with his brother Marchino, played by Marlon Joubert, it does seem to have incestuous intentions.
This brings me to a very problematic moment in the film. There is a neighbor who lives in an apartment above Fabietto and his family. This neighbor is a middle-age or possibly elderly woman named Baroness Focale. There is a scene where the Baroness gets Fabietto to have sex with her. From what we’re led to believe, Fabietto is only 16 years-old. He’s still a minor. Yet, the age of consent in Italy is 14. This means that it’s not a criminal act on its own for an adult to have sex with someone who is that young because they can consent to sex.
But, there was this controversy around Licorice Pizza (2021) and how a teenage boy has a relationship with an adult woman in that film. They don’t have sex but their relationship gets sexual to an extent and people disapproved of how it was handled. A similar conversation arose around Call Me By Your Name (2017). In that film, a teenage boy has sex with a man who’s obviously older and an adult. It was excused because that 2017 film was also set in Italy where the age of consent is 14. Yet, coming from American sensibilities, which are arguably more conservative and more prudish, it was still seen by some as problematic and unethical or even immoral, if not criminal. There was a little of that same feeling, as the scene between Fabietto and the Baroness played out.
However, even if one puts aside the inappropriate nature of that sexual encounter, I’m not sure what the scene does for the overall film. I’m guessing that because this film is like a memoir that it might just be an experience that Sorrentino actually had, but the point of it escapes me. It could feed into the overall comic, bizarre nature of this film as akin to Fellini’s comic, bizarre nature. As in Fellini’s films, there is farce to be had here and the sexuality on display is a part of it all. In that, this film is not far flung from something like American Pie (1999). Yet, it’s difficult to round that comedic turn when the beginning of Sorrentino’s film is in fact domestic abuse thrust into our faces. Like American Pie, the film is ultimately about a boy aiming to lose his virginity, but, the penultimate scene would seem to make the film about the boy discovering his love of filmmaking. As such, the whole thing feels rather unfocused, if anything.
È stata la mano di dio
Rated R for sexual content, language, graphic nudity and drug use.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 10 mins.
Available on Netflix.