Paolo Sorrentino's new film 'The Hand of God' is based on his adolescence in Naples Italian film director Paolo Sorrentino discusses his new film The Hand of God, which opens in U.S. theaters Dec. 3. It's about the tragedy he experienced as a teen and the escape he found in cinema.

Paolo Sorrentino's new film 'The Hand of God' is based on his adolescence in Naples

Paolo Sorrentino's new film 'The Hand of God' is based on his adolescence in Naples

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Italian film director Paolo Sorrentino discusses his new film The Hand of God, which opens in U.S. theaters Dec. 3. It's about the tragedy he experienced as a teen and the escape he found in cinema.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Italian film director Paolo Sorrentino's latest work, "The Hand Of God," opens tonight in U.S. theaters. The film is about the tragedy Sorrentino experienced as a teenager and how he found escape in the art of cinema.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli says it's more subdued than his usually flamboyant work. She spoke with the director in Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Paolo Sorrentino has worked in many styles; the political thriller "Il Divo," the Sean Penn road movie "This Must Be The Place," the Oscar winner, "The Great Beauty" and two surrealistic miniseries on fictional popes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE YOUNG POPE")

JAMES CROMWELL: (As Cardinal Michael Spencer) You'll be a terrible pope; the most dangerous in modern times.

POGGIOLI: His new film, "The Hand Of God," is more subdued and filled with tenderness. Sorrentino explains why it's very different from all his previous work.

PAOLO SORRENTINO: (Through interpreter) In the past, I made films on issues and subjects that I was not familiar with, and therefore, my camera was looking for things. It was on a search trip. Here, I had to do with subject matter that I'm very close to and very familiar with, so my posture was to just stand still and let the actors do their job.

POGGIOLI: Both humorous and mystical, "The Hand Of God" is based on Sorrentino's adolescence in Naples, a city basking in the 1980s in the glory of Argentine soccer player Diego Maradona playing for the local team. In a city where the sacred and profane have intermingled for centuries, the soccer star was hailed by Neapolitans as a god.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HAND OF GOD")

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Goal.

(CHEERING)

POGGIOLI: The film shows footage of Maradona's famous and controversial 1986 goal against England, achieved, as the player said later, with a little help from the hand of God.

(CHEERING)

POGGIOLI: It was Maradona, Sorrentino says, who inspired him to become a filmmaker.

SORRENTINO: (Through interpreter) My family background is from a family that hardly had any contact with the artistic world, so there was no specific interest in literature or cinema or music. And my very first contact with an art form was in watching Maradona play because his standards were so high that it was very close to art. And it was the first step for me to focus my interest in the world of entertainment.

(SOUNDBITE OF PINO DANIELE SONG, "NAPULE E")

POGGIOLI: The film's backdrop is chaotic Naples - vulgar, lawless, but also vital and seductive. It's the coming-of-age story of Fabietto, Sorrentino's alter ego; an awkward teenager growing up in a loving family. Mother Maria loves to play practical jokes. Father Saverio is a banker and a devout communist. And Fabietto is surrounded by a sprawling group of picturesque, eccentric relatives, all natural storytellers, says Sorrentino.

SORRENTINO: (Through interpreter) These are real characters. Naples has a tradition that is completely non-conventional in social behaviors. They tend to perform all the time. All Neapolitan people are wannabe actors.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAPULE E")

PINO DANIELE: (Singing in non-English language).

POGGIOLI: The first half of the film is lively and funny. The second half is marked by tragedy. Fabietto goes out of town to see his hero, Maradona, play. On his return home, he learns both parents have died from a carbon monoxide leak. He nearly goes mad, crashing against hospital walls. Fabietto realizes Maradona has inadvertently saved his life, but anguished by loss, it's a life he cannot deal with. He wants to escape to an alternate reality.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HAND OF GOD")

FILIPPO SCOTTI: (As Fabietto, through interpreter) I don't like life anymore now that my family has disintegrated. I want another one, an imaginary life. I don't like reality anymore. Reality sucks. That's why I want to make movies, even if I've only seen three or four.

POGGIOLI: As Fabietto tries to find his way out of grief, an unlikely older woman helps him through the rite of passage of losing his virginity.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HAND OF GOD")

BETTY PEDRAZZI: (Non-English language spoken).

POGGIOLI: "Don't look at me," the woman tells Fabietto. "Bury your face in my shoulder and think of the name of a girl you like. You have to imagine the show," she says, "because you can't change the channel now."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAPULE E")

DANIELE: (Singing in non-English language).

POGGIOLI: "The Hand Of God" is Italy's contender for best international feature film at the upcoming Oscars. It opens in theaters today and starts streaming on Netflix December 15.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE O'NEILL BROTHERS GROUP'S "COME FLY WITH ME (INSTRUMENTAL VERSION)")

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