New York City being squally this weekend, I decided to explore Naples via John Turturro's film on Neapolitan musical culture, "Passione." Admittedly, the phrase "musical culture" seems either redundant or limiting in view of the film's implicit contention that the music of the streets of Napoli is the city's culture, or that its culture is absorbed into and expressed through its music in an unusually direct way. The film is a kaleidoscopic composite of interviews, archival film, staged sequences, and footage of multigenerational, multiracial groups of Neapolitans singing and dancing in the streets. Documentary? Technically, I suppose; but large segments of the film seem to be inspired by the Neapolitan "Sceneggiata," mini-dramas structured around song. The moments of narration by Turturro are few and brief; although this gives rise to a temptation towards oversimplification, the film itself, I thought, remained exuberantly chaotic.
An interview with Turturro about the process of filming may be found here. Towards the beginning he makes the claim that many of the ironies and nuances of Neapolitan music, the rough edges which it celebrates or attempts to exorcise, are lost when its songs are regarded as merely nostalgic or sentimental ballads. And certainly the music and musicians of the film demonstrate the wild variety of genres and emotions present in Naples' musical landscape. There is self-dramatization, of course; there is self-irony; there is a deep consciousness of the city's long and often troubled history. After a song to San Gennaro, the soloist said: "We don't ask for miracles; we demand them." Some of my favorite segments came from the interviews with the staff of a travel agency, who voted on their favorite Neapolitan singer (Sergio Bruni won) and then proceeded to emulate his style "with due respect, with due respect." Also wonderful were three brothers who ran a record shop and held forth enthusiastically on everything from the origins of popular song to early recording technology. The fine reviews the film has received praise it for dismantling Neapolitan stereotypes. I'm not sure... much of this film seemed to say that my suspicions about Naples being a mysterious, multifaceted place, shabby and perhaps occasionally sinister, but drenched in melody and sunshine, are all true... only more so. But all the Neapolitan-speaking Italian-Americans surrounding me in the theater seemed quite satisfied, so I suspect there may be layers of Neapolitan irony that I wasn't apprehending. The film certainly does dismantle the stereotype of Neapolitan music as unrelentingly sweet, sunny, and sentimental. What of Naples' most famous musical son? Enrico Caruso beamed and waved in a few seconds of film, and sang "A Vucchella" over the closing titles. The soundtrack is available here; excerpts from the film below.