Passione : A Musical Adventure
John Turturro’s performance film “Passione” is a loosely and lovingly strung together documentary exploring the music of Naples, a gritty southern Italian port city he finds brimming with erotic fire and refined art. The movie, while often shy on insight, is an exhilarating showcase for both.
“Passione” is meant to conjure the travelogue feel of Wim Wenders and Ry Cooder’s “Buena Vista Social Club” (1999), about Cuban entertainers. But the better comparison might be Carlos Saura’s captivating “Flamenco” (1995), a film of far greater polish and power than Turturro’s work, but one that similarly examines how cultural forces shape music.
The musicians at the core of “Passione” have fused the expressive Neapolitan language with flamenco beats, Arabic ululations, the thumping bassline of Euro beat, American blues and jazz, and even reggae rhythm.
Turturro, a Noo Yawk actor who has traditionally specialized in bringing a nervous energy in Hollywood films as varied as “Barton Fink” and “Quiz Show,” is relaxed as he serves as “Passione’s” tour guide. He’s clearly enraptured by Naples, where he has spent the past few years staging theater productions.
In “Passione,” the fourth film he’s directed, Turturro is eager to make a key point about Neapolitan music. The sentimental, watered-down balladry familiar to American ears, he says, is an injustice to a vibrant musical legacy that explores poverty, immigration and sexual passions “drenched in contradiction and irony.”
“I love you so much,” he says in describing the Neapolitan character in song, “but if I can’t find you, I’ll take your sister. I’ll tell everybody that I love you, but I’ll be with your sister.”
Rather than offering much more by way of discourse or analysis — some viewers may long for more context of the music, the artists and the city — Turturro lets the camera meander like a wide-eyed visitor through the cobblestone squares and graffiti-filled alleyways.
The mood is nimbly captured by cinematographer Marco Pontecorvo, son of the late Italian-born director Gillo Pontecorvo (“The Battle of Algiers”).
In a stream of images, viewers see shopkeepers, street singers and even students summon their inner Caruso, trying to leave the impression that the city is brimming with music at every turn. But it’s the professionals who dazzle here: Every one is a gem.
So you get “O’ Sole Mio,” but repurposed with an Arabic flair by the electric-haired Tunisian singer M’Barka Ben Taleb. She single-handedly redefines this shopworn cliche into a revelation of sultry melody and mood.
And there’s Pietra Montecorvino, whose raspy, raw emotive power on “Comme Facette Mammeta” (translated as “How Your Mamma Made Ya”) makes Janis Joplin seem like Perry Como. On “Vesuvio,” the band Spakka-Neapolis 55 sings with such cavernous expression about the volcano that trembling fear is transformed into a paean to survival.
On the gentler side, singer and guitarist Fausto Cigliano renders “Catari,” a wistful ballad comparing the woman of the title to the tempestuous March weather. Other standouts include the saxophone player James Senese, who talks candidly about his experiences as a Neapolitan with an African American father.
The movie’s overall feeling is impressionistic, with the camera gliding around the city’s striking architecture. Entertainers bloom from nowhere, sing and then vanish — it’s rather like an extended music video. But, if it lacks in structure and context, “Passione” offers an abundance of musical pleasures.