Any great city is unimaginable without its music. After all, think of how many city-dedicated movies are inseparable from their iconic soundtracks? The opening glissando of “Rhapsody in Blue” that rise over the skyline in “Manhattan,” Nino Rota’s lilting melodies of the Vie Veneto in “La Dolce Vita” and the wistful zither of post-war Vienna in “The Third Man” each become part of our urban imaginations. A movie that really tries to capture a city would flounder without its unique sound and rhythm. Even Woody Allen still seems to get it and has attached fantastic soundtracks to his recent European films, using current local talent for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and Le Jazz Hot of the 1920s for “Midnight in Paris.”
Yet all of these films still seem a bit far from the richest and most indulgent urban films, the city symphonies of the 1920s. The Allen flicks and even “Treme,” the lushly musical and panoramic HBO series, are mostly conventional in their fictional narratives. John Turturro is working towards an avant-garde documentary-ish style with his new film “Passione,” which has much more in common with “Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis” than “Manhattan.” The beautifully gripping performances in his film, some 25 songs, depict the city of Naples with the kind of artistic sensibility that has been missing from many recent urban-inspired cinematic odes. Somehow Turturro manages to touch on so much of Neapolitan art and history that you feel transported, if not to the real Spaccanapoli, than to a cultural essence of the city that seems to exist elsewhere.
Turturro does it by getting to the root of things, the raw core of every song he’s included and its relationship to Naples and her history. A city, after all, is just an enormous number of individuals living in the same place, leading impassioned lives. An informative documentary about the demographics of Naples, its politics and its social problems would in a way be the emotional equivalent of a phone-book. To loosely quote Werner Herzog in “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”: the Manhattan Yellow Pages is a massive collection of information, but it can’t tell you whether or not its entries dream at night. The performances of “Passione” are more than just impressive musically; they draw from the lives, loves and dramas of the Neapolitan people.
Love, in particular, is a common theme of the canzoni that drive the film forward. There are torch songs, like Gennaro Cosmo Parlato singing his distraught heart out on the beach to a woman he cannot have, “Maruzzella.” It’s stylized, to be sure, an indulgent and over-the-top rendition complete with distressed make-up and disinterested love-making. Yet that intensity, the bold and occasionally even fearsome belting of the singers is what gives “Passione” its bite. Concert films don’t necessarily need a single ounce of subtlety, and this is nothing if not a concert performed by the city of Naples. Numbers like “Malafemmena,” a song of infidelity and vicious regret, are presented like music videos, complete with an acted performance of the lyrics. This bold approach grounds the songs in their deeply personal narratives while projecting their universal emotions on the screen.
Moreover, this isn’t just a portrait of men and women falling in and out of love in the Napoli of today. “Passione” is packed with the complex history of the city, and all of its ups and many downs. Naples has been invaded more than 20 times over its many years, and the result has been not only trauma but an extraordinary blend of various musical traditions. One performance in particular has been haunting me since the film: Peppe Barra, M’Barka Ben Taleb and Max Casella performing “Tammurriata Nera.” It’s the tale of a woman raped by an American soldier during the Second World War, and her struggle with the consequences of having the child. Musically influenced by a popular American song at the time, presumably due to all of the soldiers in the city, Turturro has produced a raw and violent performance that blends three influences on the music of the city. You’re struck by both contemporary Naples and its more than 2,000 years of history with every consecutive number. It’s powerful.
Finally, the film evokes the extraordinary physical beauty of the city and its inhabitants. Picturesque architecture is everywhere, and used to the hilt. There are the arcades of the old quarters of the city presented in the hyper-sexual dance number “Come Facette Mammetta,” and the perfectly arranged courtyards of “Era de Maggio” and “Indifferentemente,” simple and yet quite potent songs led by Portuguese Fado queen Misia. If nothing else, this film will have you deeply and violently entranced in its music, and you’ll leave the theater looking for more from the many talented musicians it brings to the screen.
“Passione” opens today in New York City.
Recommended if you like: “Amarcord”; “Treme”; music