By Eric Kohn | Indiewire June 20, 2011 at 1:58AM
When John Turturro faces the camera at the start of "Passione," his ode to the legacy of Neapolitan music, he makes a pronouncement with the superficial grandiosity of a tourist video. "There are places you go to when once is enough," he says, "and then there's Napoli." The free-ranging exploration that follows makes his point much stronger than this abrupt romanticism, but only when Turturro lets the art speak for itself.
Subtitled "a musical adventure," the actor-director's love letter to some 800 years of Neapolitan expression probes its subject with a wide romantic outlook. The movie often adopts a conventional documentary approach, allowing musicians to discuss their heritage while dissecting the lyrics that have passed through innumerable generations. Primarily, however, Turturro presents a record of the feisty rhythms and mournful elegies that define the national temperment.
"Passione" packs in 23 songs stemming from a wide variation of traditions and context. Among the standouts, Al Dexter's ironic take on "Pistol Packing Mama" blends classic rock with an indictment of the country's darkest moments of racial suppression, and a performance of "Vesuvio" takes place next to the volcano in question. Strung together with a natural flow, these sequences lend "Passione" the feeling of a concert movie. Beyond occasional excerpts from conversations about the music's value, the soundtrack leads the way.
Turturro's involvement with a project of this nature, for which he was recruited by producers Carlo Macchitella and Robert Cicutto, makes sense in light of his undervalued directorial debut, "Romance and Cigarettes," a far stranger and more flamboyant musical endeavor. However, Turturro frequently overplays the music's inherent appeal. On a cinematic level, the staged sequences leave much to be desired, as they run through straightforward concert footage (the best scenes), MTV-ready flashiness and soap opera cheese. In short, Turturro's curatorial instincts are better than his music video skills.
And yet "Passione" does a greater service to the music when tracking its complex lineage. Turturro's camera captures elderly musicians performing their best Sergio Bruni impressions and debating whether De Luca or Caruso had more influence on contemporary Neopolitan sounds. (The answer apparently lies in their varying ages when sound technology was invented.) Beyond such nitpicking, Turturro emphasizes the range of music as a reflection of the city's many invasions, including those by the Normans and Americans, a background that explains the blend of celebration and solemnity--an expression of Neapolitan identity as "everybody and nobody at the same time," according to one musician. This provocative analytical approach is often at odds with the campier segments in "Passione," but even a poorly staged music number doesn't negate the quality of the music.
Turturro (neé Giuá, as he's listed in the credits) frequently appears on camera, musing on the history and cultural value of the music, interrogating local musicians and sometimes even belting out a few notes or busting a move himself. Fortunately, he's never really the star of the show. That honor belongs to the musicians, without whom "Passione" would have plenty of lust, but no soul.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Generally well-received on the fall festival circuit (it played Venice and Toronto back-to-back), "Passione" may not generate a huge turnout when it opens in New York at Film Forum on Friday, but should enjoy a healthy life as niche entertainment for those with an affinity for the music.
criticWIRE grade: B