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Directed by John Turturro
Produced by
Alessandra Acciai, Carlo Macchitella & Giorgio Magliulo
Written by
Turturro & Federico Vacalebre, based on an idea by Carlo Macchitella
Released by Squeezed Heart
USA. 90 min. Not Rated

Passione, subtitled “a musical adventure,” is actor/director John Turturro’s idiosyncratic tour of the popular music of Naples. The producers approached him, as the director of Romance & Cigarettes (2005), to film a tribute to Neapolitan musicians modeled after Wim Wenders’ Havana-oriented Buena Vista Social Club (1999). But from the opening flamenco dancer and clapping rhythms, the celebration proceeds more in the style of Spanish director Carlos Saura’s Fados, highlighted by exuberant performances filmed in non-tourist locations.

After the first song, about the risks of living next to a volcano (“Vesuvio” by the band Spakka-Neapolis 55, that has also been heard on The Sopranos), Turturro’s emphasis shifts to how the port city brought in many different cultural influences. His on-screen amusing and effusive narration is a somewhat chronological history of recorded music. Record collectors, writers, and performers nostalgically cite their favorites, heard and then seen in many archival clips. Past renditions of both lesser and well-known classics, like, of course, “O Sole Mio,” segue into contemporary interpretations, such as soulful Tunisian singer M’Barka Ben Taleb representing the influence of North African immigrants on the city’s culture.

Of all the invaders in Naples’ history, American GIs during and after World War II get the most visual and musical documentation with newsreels and even English-language songs by local performers. Saxophonist James Senese discusses his personal experience of prejudice as the son of an African-American soldier he never knew. (His jazz version of the title piece is lovely). In the style of the original Spike Jones band, the novelty tune “Caravan Petrol” is sung by the singer Fiorello and his band, with Turturro joining in the dancing fun in the sand. Standing out is mesmerizing singer Raiz leading the multiracial and multicultural band Almamegretta that irresistibly fuses hip hop, reggae and seemingly all the musical influences in Naples’ history for a very contemporary world music sound.

With a brief mention of the musicality of the very distinctive Neapolitan dialect, Turturro also showcases songs as storytelling through mini-dramas, with singer Massimo Ranieri performing “Malafemmena” as a husband caught in bed with his lover in a duet with his anguished wife. Charismatic Pietra Montecorvino’s husky Marianne Faithfull-like voice and sexy, tattooed presence (with dangling cross) strolling the streets while singing two songs represents the Madonna/whore duality of women in Neapolitan culture.

Amidst other tunes that are just pleasant pop, traditional folk music at street festivals is only referred to in passing, and classical guitar played in a church setting is the closest to showing the impact of religious music. Towards the end, one of the most striking performances, in look and sound, is the song claimed to be Naples’ oldest, from the 1300s, “Canto delle Lavandaie del Vomero” (“The Song of the Laundresses of Vomero”). But with subtitles only provided erratically, and no translation of any of the song titles, one could be mystified why a trio of women singers wanders beneath a dripping aqueduct in an ancient neighborhood. Yet despite the confusing presentation of the background and specifics of each song and artist, whether past and present, the passion comes through, enthusiastically bringing Neapolitan music to the world stage. Nora Lee Mandel
June 24, 2011



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