It is a strange thing to say of a director's unmistakably intimate, personal, and passionate film that it also feels like he's working in an unusually minor mode. But I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a better way of quickly describing the very curious ambivalence at the heart of The Hand of God, which finds Paolo Sorrentino in an unusually autobiographical mood. Not exactly a sentimental, nostalgic mood, though sentiment and nostalgia are amongst the ingredients he's used to flavor his screenplay, based (apparently fairly closely) on events that transpired during his own teen years, in the mid-1980s. It's clear enough by the film's end that Sorrentino doesn't have very much to be sentimental about, which is probably what gives this such a peculiar, distinctive tone: eerily detailed and precise about so many big and small things about the world surrounding the filmmaker's stand-in, Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti) in a way that unmistakably suggests an artist sinking back into his past, but with very little of the warmth that typically comes from such an exercise. It's more like Sorrentino has reasoned, correctly, that his life would be good fodder for a coming-of-age character drama, and proceeded to treat himself accordingly.

All well and good, but what The Hand of God doesn't have - I cannot say "what it's missing", since it seems pretty obvious that this turned out exactly the way the writer-director  had in mind - is the tonal and stylistic extravagance that marks all of Sorrentino's major projects since he broke through internationally in a modest way with 2008's Il Divo and then in a great big massive way with 2013's The Great Beauty. It is a more delicate, soft-touch affair, focused on letting character moments breathe and not on walloping us every few shots with Cinema. And of course there's nothing wrong with soft, intimate character moments that have space to breathe, but we have so few filmmakers around these days who have a great handle on the great pleasures of well-done excess, I cannot help but grouse when one of the best of them is in a pensive mood.

Having said all of that, The Hand of God is still a pretty robust bit of filmmaking, by most standards - certainly by the standards of Netflix, who paid for this, and got in return one of the rare films to show up on that service looking like it actually had a cinematographer hired to shoot it (Cristiano Travaglioli, to be specific, Sorrentino's guy since way back). The film breaks into two halves, and to say exact what triggers that break would be to give up the one definite spoiler that can be had for a movie that's more about capturing the essence of moments than telling a propulsive story. But it can, I think, safely be said that the first half is all about collections of humans, the second half all about being isolated and alone, and this is nimbly reflected in the way that the film's images come to us. Early on, the focus is on group shots filmed with bright light and wide-angle lenses, and the results are pretty splendid: Fabietto's extended family keeps filling scene after scene of overstuffed frames, given great bolts of lively color by costume designer Mariano Tufano, with the wide lenses creating a mild warping sensation, like even the widescreen frame is bursting and straining with the effort of keeping the whole clan straight as they and their melodramatic complaints keep flaring up.

The film's cast is wonderful: Scotti is somewhat purposefully vague, a passive figure who observes for the whole of that first half and some of the second, without necessarily doing anything about what he observes, or even clearly forming opinions about it, but everyone else is pretty instantaneously memorable, between their faces, their costuming, and the energy the actors are bringing. Which is crucial fora  film whose ensemble spills out in such a messy tumble as this one's, with multiple generations zipping around like electrons with no nucleus. Toni Servillo, a regular collaborator of Sorrentino's, and Teresa Saponangelo ground the film's narrative, such as it is, as Fabietto's parents, and it regularly refocuses its attention just on them and their  conflicts, not all of which get neatly papered over even when they're ultimately ignored. They're a great pair of anchors, charming and slightly abrasive, witty with a trace of meanness behind it, and when The Hand of God keeps itself limited just to watching the interactions of the core Schisa family, it's all the charming, nostalgic things it's easy to expect the whole project to be, executed with great skill. But even when it gets bigger and messier, there's still a warm humanity to it, as the extended cast plays their characters as distinct types who (mostly) avoid becoming the Felliniesque grotesques that this scenario might have readily turned into, especially with its Amarcord-like focus on intense adolescent memories as the material of cinematic storytelling (Fellini is one of two Italian directors prominently mentioned approvingly, even fannishly, and the one who I would imagine is far better known to non-Italians; certainly he was to this non-Italian writer).

The film's second part, I cannot lie, lost me. Partially because it necessarily starts to cut way the non-Scotti cast members, and while I think Scotti rises to the challenge, he lacks the instantaneously gregarious presence of many of the older actors. Also, the nostalgic, lively vibe of the first half... well, it is very nice and enjoyable to watch, even if it's unambiguously a cheap ploy to make things bright and fun. Nor a particularly rare cheap ploy for Italian films about big families in particular. And while it speaks well of Sorrentino's intentions that he wants to make The Hand of God something more complex than just a dive into his youth, the already-diffuse first half giving into an even more diffuse, gloomy second half makes the film start to feel a bit logy. Not least because, to a certain extent, it's just exchanging one set of Italian art film clichés for a different set.

Even so, there's a lot here that just works. The film's rudderless structure is in part an illusion; it's just the structure isn't conventionally narrative, but built around Fabietto's (that is, Sorrentino's) preoccupation with Argentine football player Diego Maradona, who might be joining Napoli when the film begins and then does so, and who gives the film its title thanks to a legendary goal he scored against England during the 1986 World Cup. And, in both a symbolic and a literal sense, he saves Fabietto's life. It's not precisely a film about being a sports fan, though one of its most indelible, perfect moments is just such a thing: the camera is hanging out over a courtyard, and after that same goal is scored, all of the balconies are suddenly full of people cheering and celebrating, out-of-focus smudges suggesting the great mystery of a whole community of unrelated people suddenly snapping into the same emotional register while watching their team.

Rather, the film is mostly about the psychic state of adolescence, the fixations and preoccupations and horniness. Maradona is something that lets Fabietto sort his life into an ongoing narrative, to mark out certain key moments in that narrative, and Sorrentino is honest with both his younger self and his young protagonist in honoring that kind of deliberately undramatic way of structuring the experiences that make up the film. I'm not absolutely sure this always works, and it eventually seems to matter less to the film than something that dominates so much of the first half and provides the title ought to matter; but it's an intriguing experiment. And that experimentation is a big part of why The Hand of God is much more interesting than a meandering tour of the artist's memoirs would have any obvious reason to be.