The long opening shot of “The Hand of God” is set in a stunning locale – the impressive natural landscape of the Napoli coast – an epic viewing that instantly re-inspires post-quarantine wanderlust for the outdoors. But as the vivid colors of the tranquil sea and town landscape begin to fade, the camera shifts from the superb quiet, panoramic scene to a busy evening fraught with loud noises from horns blaring in traffic jams and a group of commuters waiting for a bus.
Among the crowd is Patrizia (Laura Ranieri) with her nipples showing through her sheer white dress. Patrizia with her bared nipples and pubic hair (in a later scene) sets the recurring motifs to Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Hand of God”.
Although a minor character tangentially associated with the whole story, Patrizia is a huge plot point for the lead character Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti), a young teenager who approaches the transition to adulthood with overwhelming difficulties in the process. Fabietto’s maternal aunt, Patrizia is a woman that would emulate Kardashian’s larger-than-life beauty ideals – a voluptuous body with a bless of substantial bust and a proclivity for exhibitionistic behaviors.
The first time we see Fabietto and Patrizia’s encounter is when her luscious breast slips vulnerably from her torn dress and hangs freely – a moment in which Fabietto (as is his father) is dumbfounded, indulging himself in a dreamlike, horny stare. He gets his first chance to taste the ‘forbidden fruit’ and realizes it is sweeter than he’d imagined.
Since that encounter, Patrizia has become the muse of Fabietto’s sexual awakening – his burning sexual desire and his first unrequited yet unapologetic passion – much like Renato Amoroso’s obsessed infatuation with Malèna Scordiaas in Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Malena” (2000).
Patrizia captures the young protagonist’s standpoint and sets the tone for the events through the lens of a pubescent boy who is at the onset of sexuality but lacks the maturity to put things into perspective. The heartwarming family scooter ride down the nighttime street and his aunt’s nip slip are the first key turning point of “The Hand of God” narrative. His adulthood is on the burgeoning right there.
When Patrizia sunbathes nude on the deck of a boat during a family outing, she is subject to patriarchal gaze. Her barenaked body lies right in the center of the camera with a glimpse of a full, 70s-esque bush, which leaves little to imagination. She becomes the erotic object for the camera, the characters within the film, and the audiences–the heterosexual males. Women exhibit. Men look.
The notion of male gaze has a lot to do with the gender identity within the film industry. Film industry is a man’s world, which has drawn critical attention to gender disparity over several decades. Such disparity impacts filmmaking process in a way that cinema fails to register the understanding, experiences and perspectives of diverse social groups. This in turn has solidified today’s exceptionally viable gendered films; much more male-led than female-oriented.
Kim Leonard in his April article explains
“Men writing the films, men making the films, men being the protagonists, and men being the target audience all combine into a unified—heterosexual male perspective of female characters. In other words, we all have been conditioned to adopt the male gaze because that is the way we were “raised” by traditional cinema.“
In her groundwork 1975’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Laura Mulvey coined and articulated the landmark term ‘male gaze’. She argued that the camera in conventional narrative films “looked” at female actors with dominant voyeuristic perspective. They performed within narrative that subjugated them in a “controlling and curious” gaze and were visually placed as objects of heterosexual male desire in the ‘classical’ Hollywood tradition.
While the spectator and the protagonist, both typically heterosexual males, were powerful “bearers of the look,” the females’ on-screen presence was passive “spectacles” on display. “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female,” Mulvey writes. “The determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly.”
Mulvey further pointed out that female portrayals in cinema were a decorative element, a mere icon and a lack of agency. Audience was not attracted to gain some insights into their interior lives because their only purpose was to look pretty and sexually suggestive and to gratify male desires. Nothing else.
Females and their commoditized physical beauties are typically used as props in their alignment with voyeuristic fantasies for the sake of masculine heterosexual diegesis. Male gaze frames womanhood and female body in fragments – fetishizing and dehumanizing women at the same time.
The first character we identify in “The Hand of God” is Patrizia. There is something about the opening scene that makes you feel you’re watching Patrizia as the lead character with complex plot lines (from the Neapolitan folklore’s little monk to the unnerving romance between fertility and domestic abuse). Yet, she is underdeveloped. All we learn about her is her penchant for exhibitionism, her long struggles to conceive and unstated mental instability.
“The Hand of God” looks very ‘predatory’, with male gaze standing out at its finest. We stare at, manipulate and contemplate on Patrizia’s looks throughout the film. Her personality means nothing against her sexually-alluring physique. Like Fabietto, we look and look at her, but we never truly see her.
“The Hand of God” has been streaming on Netflix since December 15.