"O Sole Mio" and Enrico Caruso aren't simply Italian. They're Neapolitan, the product of a city whose music is worldly, carnal and more closely linked to Andalucia than to Rome or Milan.
Even devotees who know all that are likely to learn a few things from Passione, John Turturro's cinematic rhapsody to the music of the city he, with affable pretentiousness, calls "Napoli." But the information doesn't come from cultural historians and ethnomusicologists.
Wandering into the frame to comment, the Sicilian-American actor notes that many a Neapolitan song was originally part of a sceneggiata, a pre-MTV musical mini-narrative. He also argues that the old-country ballads people today consider "sentimental" are actually "drenched in contradiction and irony."
That's a big chunk of the film's analysis right there. The director introduces some other talking heads and makes a few additional remarks. But when mouths open in Passione, it's usually to sing (or at least lip sync). And Turturro spends almost as much time on-screen dancing as talking. (He's at the end of the conga line during "Caravan Petrol," a playful number about black gold.)
Viewers who require more context may be frustrated, but the movie is always lively, and its loose approach to history suits its impressionistic style. If the filmmaker blurs together the city's many "invasions" — a list on which he includes the Yanks' 1943 arrival — it's to depict Naples as an ever-bubbling melting pot.
Everyone's part of the broth, from the ancient Greeks to the African-American GI father of local saxophonist James Senese, who offers a Latin-jazz reading of the movie's title tune. An eclectic version of "Pistol Packin' Mama," featuring a rare English lyric, invokes the U.S. presence with rapped lyrics and ragtime piano but adds Euro-cafe accordion and Arabic tambourines.
Some of the songs are clearly from the past, identified as historical by black-and-white photographs and archival footage. These draw on Italian opera and Spanish flamenco, as well as the cabaret style identified with Weimar Germany and Brecht-Weill musicals. Other material flaunts its modernity with borrowings from techno, reggae, hip-hop and Franco-Algerian rai. During one up-to-date number, women in tight jeans gyrate with a vigor that would have been risque even for such mid-20th century stars as Angela Luce, who titillated by singing of a prostitute's life.
Most of the performers are veterans, not Neapolitan teeny-popsters, and the big beat doesn't always indicate a contemporary twist on tradition. One thumping number is part of ritual — celebrating the city's patron, St. Gennaro — that dates to the 13th century.
The director's selection of songs and styles may be more personal than representative, but it covers a lot of territory and makes for an exuberant, diverse revue. For maximum atmosphere, Turturro shot in some of the most dilapidated parts of town, at times evoking Gomorrah, the 2008 gangster film set in a less melodious Naples. But the menace here is not the gangster seeking protection money, but the rogue who'll seduce your true love should you ever happen to look the other way.
No wonder one Neapolitan singer broods, "Endless are the wounds of love."