Meet Filippo Scotti: Italian cinema’s new rising star
The Soho House member and actor takes the lead in Paolo Sorrentino’s semi-autobiographical film, The Hand Of God. Here, the newcomer talks to Stephanie Rafanelli about battling anxiety and the pressure of retelling personal tragedy for his big silver-screen debut
By Stephanie Rafanelli Photography by Andrea Mete
During writer-director Paolo Sorrentino’s acceptance speech for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Oscars® for his film The Great Beauty (2013), he thanked legendary director Federico Fellini, his home city of Naples, Diego Maradona, and Talking Heads, before dedicating the Academy Award® to his parents. In the milieu of Oscars® gushes, few understood the poignancy of his gesture, or the pivotal role the name-checked played in his life.
From his international breakout, Il Divo (2008), a brave, highly stylised biopic of ex-Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti, the Neapolitan has been known for sprawling works of cinematic maximalism, high irony, and penetrative scripts. He has examined the mechanics of absolute power, directing Toni Servillo as Silvio Berlusconi in Loro (2018), and Jude Law and John Malkovich in HBO’s The Young Pope (2016) and The New Pope (2020) respectively. But for Sorrentino’s ninth feature – a Proustian coming-of-age tale – he turns from mining others’ lies to excavating his own painful truth. The Hand Of God (2021), which is set in 1980s Naples, reveals to the world not only Sorrentino’s cruelly truncated childhood and the redemption he found in film, but also a new talent in the shape of relative unknown, Filippo Scotti.
'I have to avoid the mistake of telling myself, “I’m good because I did a Sorrentino film and now I can do whatever I want”. I have to catch as much as I can, learn from others and improve.'
The 21-year-old Italian actor plays the director’s sensitive 16-year-old avatar, Fabietto Schisa, whose life in the limbo of adolescence is exalted by his erotic fixation with his aunt, Napoli’s signing of Maradona, and a near encounter with Fellini. Cast by Sorrentino from 100 hopefuls, Scotti’s conveying of layered, raw emotions won him the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Emerging Actor, inclusion in Variety’s 10 Actors to Watch for 2021, and the attentions of Prada.
Now that the film is long-listed for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar®, he’s likely to attend the next Academy Awards®, too. It’s been quite a few months. ‘Yes, it’s by the hand of God,’ jokes Scotti, all honesty and goofiness, in endearingly accented English from Rome over Zoom. ‘But at the same time, it was also Filippo. In Italy we have an expression: help yourself, so God can help you. I’ve worked really hard since I was 14.’ His performance has drawn comparison to Timothée Chalamet’s in Call Me By Your Name (2017). Scotti can’t stop laughing at this. ‘I’m always thinking that Timothée Chalamet is a great actor and that I’m just not as good.’
Scotti is as angular and gangly as a juvenile greyhound, peering beneath a mass of curly hair that reminds me both of Bob Dylan’s and Harpo Marx’s – an ambiguity that sits well with the film’s shifting tone. The first half is a love letter to the beauty and humanity of Naples, seen as a kind of mass tragicomedy through the protagonist’s darkly humoured and exuberant family. His father Saverio is a ‘communist’ banker; his mother, Maria, a tender mamma-clown who juggles oranges through heartbreak and executes ruthless practical jokes.
‘Neapolitans constantly live in the shadow of a volcano, which is like living on the edge of a cliff that could disappear at any moment into the sea, but they see the hilarity of life,’ he says. ‘They laugh even in moments of great tragedy.’ The film is also a hymn to the late Maradona who, says Sorrentino, ‘suddenly appeared like a God’ in dilapidated 1980s Naples. ‘Maradona is a sacred figure in Naples,’ confirms Scotti. ‘Where you find images of the saints or Jesus Christ, you will always see a small figurine of Maradona.’
‘I’d go home every night after the day’s shoot thinking deeply about everything, and wake up in the morning to find a text from Paolo, saying, “You’re doing great. Don’t worry. Trust me”.’
Maradona was not only Naples’ saviour, but the 16-year-old Sorrentino’s. His decision to stay at home to watch Napoli play Empoli rather than go away for the weekend, by some twist of fate, ended up saving his life. In a mire of powerlessness and grief, he turned to the imaginary world of film for refuge – Scotti’s point of connection with Sorrentino’s alter ego, Fabietto.
The actor’s teenage years were troubled; his salvation, acting workshops and youth theatre. ‘I was the worst in my class at high school. I became very shy and sad. I felt powerless.’ Scotti was moved when playing a scene between Fabietto and his mother, when he sleeps in her bed like a small boy. ‘That scene was touching. I spent a lot of time with my mum; I would talk to her about my problems, how I wasn’t able to go out, how I wasn’t able to connect with others. Theatre was a way to escape, to be understood. At school, I was just a two or a three out of 10; theatre was a space where someone could say to me, “you’re good at this”.’ At 17, he was spotted by Bellini Theatre’s artistic director, who auditioned him on the spot in the gallery by the light of an iPhone and cast him in Titus Andronicus. He did more theatre, short films and small TV parts, building up to a supporting role in Netflix’s teen fantasy drama, Luna Nera (2020).
After being cast by Sorrentino, Scotti spent the summer of 2020 at home listening to Talking Heads to prepare for the role while his family were on holiday. ‘That summer, I wore a mask all the time. I could not believe this was happening to me and I was so scared that Covid would rob me of this incredible opportunity.’ For the set, they reconstructed the Sorrentino family home down to the last detail. Fabietto’s bedroom; a riotous family lunch by the sea; the curves of his aunt – they are all seen through Fabietto’s gaze as if Sorrentino has returned to look at his youth one last time.
‘Sometimes, Paolo [Sorrentino] was very touched. We all understood that we weren’t just doing a movie, we were changing something for him.’ Being the fulcrum of the film, Scotti was under pressure. ‘I’d go home every night after the day’s shoot thinking deeply about everything, and wake up in the morning to find a text from Paolo, saying, “You’re doing great. Don’t worry. Trust me”.’ A powerful hospital scene in which Fabietto breaks down hits the rawest nerve. ‘The atmosphere on set was pretty tense. There was a great silence. We only heard the clap of the clapperboard.’ The shoot wasn’t quite ‘group therapy’, but ‘for me, it was very therapeutic. I understood how important it is to “pull out” the truth. It helped me. I hope it was the same for Paolo,’ he says.
At the end credits, we leave Fabietto on a train to Rome, at the year zero of Sorrentino’s career. It’s also a train that seems to carry Scotti to his screen future. But for now, he’s just enjoying the ride. ‘The “next project” is this project,’ he says. ‘I have to avoid the mistake of telling myself, “I’m good because I did a Sorrentino film and now I can do whatever I want”. I have to catch as much as I can, learn from others, improve. For now, this is the biggest project of my life.’