Passione: A Musical Adventure
Singing with ‘Passione’: Director Turturro offers a visual and musical love letter to Naples
"Passione: A Musical Adventure’’ is a deeply felt, sumptuously filmed love letter to the popular song of Naples. It’s also actor-director John Turturro’s version of “What I Did on Vacation.’’ His personal enthusiasm lifts this oddity - half documentary, half Eurovision music video - close to the sublime, especially if you have a thing for sensuous Italians of either gender unleashing ballads of soaring romantic masochism.
“Poison me, wait not for tomorrow, because if you kill me indifferently, I won’t react/ Laugh while you cut out my heart, I no longer feel any pain.’’ Just another light ditty from Napoli, this one called “Indifferentemente’’ and performed toward the end of “Passione’’ by the Portuguese fadista Misia. Backed by a seated guitarist, she sings in an empty public square as if daring the bricks to cry. It’s a hair-raising moment and the emotional climax of a film that wanders far and wide through the back alleys of song.
Turturro stages almost all the performances outdoors, in streets, in markets, often with pleasurably confused Neapolitans looking on and occasionally joining in. These songs are genetically encoded on an urban level, with associated rituals that go back to the 1300s and earlier. One performer explains that Naples has been invaded so often - by Africans, British, Americans, lava from nearby Vesuvius - that a fatalistic persecution complex courses through the music’s blood.
The filmmaker drops by the offices of a record company that has been preserving the local songs since the days of wax cylinders; the third-generation brothers who run the place bicker over the respective merits of Fernando de Lucia and Enrico Caruso. He stages the performances in borderline-surreal scenarios: a melodramatic aria on a public beach, a macho soap opera involving a straying husband (played/sung by the legendary Massimo Ranieri) forgiving his wife for getting upset about his affairs. Not everything works: A comic sketch in which a prison guard sings flatteringly to the mafia boss under his care doesn’t come up to the inspired level of the lyrics.
Turturro’s own on-camera appearances, explaining it all for us like a good host should, also aren’t strictly necessary. But Marco Pontecorvo’s ripe cinematography makes up for a lot, and when all else fails, the director just fills the balconies and piazzas with dancing Italian beauties. He reaches back to the past, too, with televised performance clips of greats like Sergio Bruni and newsreel footage of Naples at its postwar ebb, when song was almost all that anybody had left.
At its frequent best, “Passione’’ is frankly about fusion - the many nationalities and styles that have gone into the city’s cultural stew. The film’s highlight may be the live mash-up of M’Barka Ben Taleb’s North African keenings, the US country hit “Pistol Packin’ Mama’’ as sung by American actor Max Casella, and the heart-stopping “Tammurriata Nera,’’ a song about Italian kids of black American GIs performed by Peppe Barra. At moments like these you can feel the entire world filtered through Neapolitan soul.