A Neapolitan story

Filippo Scotti is the award-winning breakout star of Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘Hand of God’
By Alex James Taylor | Film+TV | 15 February 2022
Photographer Jori Komulainen

In July 1984, Diego Maradona arrived in Naples as the greatest footballer in the world, with not only the city’s Serie A title ambitions on his shoulders, but the dreams of a city in political and economic struggle. Like every Neapolitan that day, Academy Award-winning director Paolo Sorrentino welcomed his Argentinian saviour with the sort of revere usually reserved for the Madonna. But for Sorrentino, this deliria turned to despair when he tragically lost his parents soon after.

In his new semi-autobiographical work, The Hand of God, Sorrentino’s story is translated on-screen by Filippo Scotti, playing a thinly-veiled representation of Sorrentino’s adolescent self. From obscurity to global acclaim, Scotti’s performance carries the film with the sort of nuanced brilliance Maradona would be proud of, turning Sorrentino’s personal story into a universal one. At Venice Film Festival the film won the Grand Jury Prize and Scotti took home the coveted Marcello Mastroianni Award, but the actor’s most gratifying praise comes from Sorrentino himself.

Knitwear, rollneck and trousers all by Dior S22

Alex James Taylor: Can you tell us about when you first saw Filippo’s audition and what stood out about him to you?
Paolo Sorrentino: I found Filippo in the very traditional way, with my casting director we started to look for Neopolitan actors and non-actors, and after a while we auditioned Filippo and then met three, four, five other times. We more or less did auditions for almost all the script, even with the other actors.
Filippo Scotti: Yes, the last one was with Marlon [Joubert].
PS: We were trying to figure out if Filippo was the right actor to play such a main character, as the movie is all on his shoulders, and he was. He’s a great actor, he’s intelligent but also shy and not at ease with life. This is what I was looking for because this type of person reminded me of a younger version of myself, when I was seventeen, eighteen-years- old. He was perfect.
FS: It was a very important moment in my life, also because I’ve never had the possibility of finding a character like that, so amazingly formed. I was a bit stressed doing the audition with Paolo, but not because he was bad with me, because I’m a fan of his movies. It was super cool.

AJT: Did you feel any added pressure because you were effectively playing a younger version of Paolo?
FS: Actually I tried to just think about the role and not about playing the young director, because that would make it more difficult than it already was. Paolo wrote an amazing script, where if you search inside, you’ll find almost everything you want – actually, in this case I think everything you want. You just have to focus on it, concentrate and build your way. With Paolo, the most difficult things are easy because it’s very organised and the idea is clear from the beginning, this helped me a lot as an actor.

AJT: The film obviously has events very specific to Paolo’s life, however I found myself resonating with aspects of young Paolo throughout, mostly that sense of finding yourself as a teenager and belonging to something.
FS: I have to say that I knew very well the feeling to be without friends and be misunderstood. This was a point in common with the character. Then I had to build other things, also because the big loss of his parents isn’t something I have experienced, so I had to move with my own truth. That point in common – to be misunderstood, without friends – it moves you to a specific person within the adult world. In my case, when I was fifteen and I was alone, I searched for the answer not really from my parents, but from movies and books – I think this makes you grow up faster, in a way. I think this is a nice chance if you know how to take it.

“Maradona is not only a great football player, in his good and bad aspects he is a charismatic person, he brings something that is very unusual in life: charisma.”

Knitwear and rollneck both by Prada FW21

AJT: Paolo, did you see this similarity between the two of you immediately?
PS: It was just a suspicion. It was his demeanour that suggested to me these characteristics, and this was enough for me because a character is someone you pretend to be, it’s not important you are really like your character, there are other things that are important. Usually in movies it’s not easy for an actor to do reaction shots, but in this movie it was very important as the first half, almost one hour, the character is more an observer, more a person who studies the life around him rather than acting on things. Filippo is very good at finding multiple nuances when it comes to observational reactions.

AJT: Can you also tell me a bit about that time when Maradona arrived in Naples, from what I’ve seen and read, it meant much more than just football. I’ve seen Asif Kapadia’s 2019 documentary about Maradona’s arrival which represents this really well.
PS: The documentary you saw is pretty precise about the mood and atmosphere in Naples when Maradona arrived. A big, crazy excitement after years of a dark mood in the city. Naples was overwhelmed by problems joined to the economic crisis, so the arrival of Maradona was a sort of liberation. It was something that, in a crazy way, brought an idea of freedom to all of us, especially in the younger generation. Not only because we had hopes about the football, that was one aspect, but the fact he chose us, a non-city in the football world, it gave us the idea that we could be loved by someone important. That was something we hadn’t felt until that moment.

AJT: It seemed that he allowed the city to dream again.
PS: Yes, he allowed us to dream, to be part of something important. Maradona is not only a great football player, in his good and bad aspects he is a charismatic person, he brings something that is very unusual in life: charisma. This charisma was perfect for our city because it was a mix of many things we’ve always had in our history – the sacred and the profane. Inside Maradona, there were many contradictions that were also contradictions of the city. This is the reason we love him so much.
FS: That was the thing I had to put work into, because I am a soccer fan but just for Italy, so the World Cup is something I like very much, to be with my family and watch the match. Maradona is someone that I always thought is… of course he’s the god of football, but he’s also a figure who was leading in my childhood. I was born in the north of Italy, then when I moved to Naples I couldn’t not see Maradona everywhere. He was even in the Saint shrines wearing a crown. I had to build this football passion before the beginning of the movie, so I stayed in my place when my parents were on holiday and read books, watched documentaries and tried to build that passion and knowledge. Maradona was not only a footballer, he was also a religious figure.

Shirt by Louis Vuitton R22

AJT: And what was it like filming in Naples, a city you both know extremely well? Do you live there now, Paolo?
PS: I live in Rome now. I knew the locations before we started because most of them are the places I used to live. The house is exactly the house I lived in, one apartment down. So I was not trying to find new locations, I was trying to create reconstructions of the real places I used to go. For me, it was a bit unusual because I never would have chosen those locations for other projects because they are so personal and private. I was not worried about the aesthetic of the locations in terms of my shot or framing, it was a background behind the characters. So I don’t feel like I made a movie about Naples, I feel like I made a movie about a young man, me, who grew up in Naples.

“This movie is basically telling us not to be scared of the future, even in the worst condition. It speaks about everyone’s pain.”

Shirt by Margaret
Howell FW21; Earrings, worn throughout, Filippo’s own

AJT: When did you write the film?
PS: I don’t remember exactly, but around four years ago.

AJT: Did you always know you wanted to make this story into a film, or was this a more recent realisation?
PS: No, in truth at the beginning I didn’t have the idea to shoot the movie, the script was more something that I did in order to describe parts of my life to my kids, my son and daughter. But then, year after year, I went back to the script and thought maybe it’d be a good idea to do the movie. Then the pandemic gave acceleration and pushed me to do it because the movie contains a very simple idea, that even in the pain after big tragedy, a younger person can see light at the end of the tunnel, they can see the future. My kids were a little bit depressed because of the pandemic, so I was scared that they didn’t recognise this future light.

AJT: It’s a story of optimism and encouragement.
PS: Yes. As a father I’m very worried because I remember myself, at sixteen, seventeen, you can think that the future does not belong to you. This is something that puts me in a position of pain, so the movie is a small step in order to say the opposite thing.
FS: I think it’s very important. This movie is basically telling us not to be scared of the future, even in the worst condition. It speaks about everyone’s pain. It’s a specific story that works as a universal one, and that was the point of a scene we shot with the director, Antonio Capuano. In that moment, I remember that Paolo asked us to tell him our truth, and not the truth of the movie, of the characters. I think that was the perfect example showing how the movie speaks to everyone. It says: this is bad, I know, but don’t worry, things will change, you can change chapter, change page, and see the light, for real, it can be beautiful.

AJT: Did acting out scenes such as the one with Capuano make you explore these ideas in your own life?
FS: Yes definitely. Also because, for me, these ideas started when I received the first e-mail. I didn’t know Paolo was the director, I just received an e-mail asking me to come to the audition. After three-and-a-half months of a flat moment, this was something that pushed me from the beginning, to change things in my life, to do my best, and this is what I try to do. The idea of the movie is to do with the future, [and this is very important now] because of the recent time that we lived through.

AJT: How did you feel when you watched the entire film for the first time?
FS: The first time I watched it by myself. I was very scared and didn’t focus on the movie really. But I saw the movie for the first time for real when we were in Venice in September, that moment I watched the movie properly and loved it.

AJT: And being at Venice must have been amazing.
FS: Yes, it was a very overwhelming situation, but I loved it because first of all I saw Venice for the first time, and it also marked a new chapter on a new year, because we started shooting in September, 2020 – it was a feeling of re-living those moments and I was really very happy.

Shirt, t-shirt, worn underneath, trousers and belt all by Margaret Howell FW21

The Hand of God is out now on Netflix.

Interview originally published in The HERO Winter Annual 2021.


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