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Passione: movie review

A giddy paean to the soundscape of Naples: Actor John Turturro’s ‘Passione’ documentary is anything but straightforward.

By Peter Rainer / July 22, 2011

Gennaro Cosmo Parlato gives an unexpected performance of ‘Maruzzella’ to Neapolitan beachgoers in ‘Passione,’ a film directed – with tremendous enthusiasm – by actor John Tur­turro.

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When I heard that the actor John Tur­turro had directed a documentary, “Pas­sione,” about the music of Naples, Italy, I braced myself for a straightforward history lesson. Since I know very little about Neapolitan music, this was not an altogether unpleasant expectation, but the dutifulness of the enterprise – its “instructional” value – was a potential turnoff.

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I needn’t have worried. “Passione” is, in the best sense, educational, but it’s also anything but straightforward. What Turturro, who appears in the film as a combination tour guide and impresario, has come up with is closer to a fantasia than a traditional documentary. It’s as if that warm Neapolitan sun got to him. He loves this city and he’s deliriously happy offering up its soundscape to us.

The closest approximation to “Passione” is probably the Wim Wenders-Ry Cooder documentary “Buena Vista Social Club,” which brought to rousing, poignant life the old Havana music scene. In both films, we get the distinct impression that anybody randomly plucked off the streets could instantly offer up an aria that would make the heavens weep. Music is the lifeblood of these cultures, a way of making sense of life, of enduring it and exalting it.

But “Buena Vista” is far less hallucinatory in its effects than “Passione,” where Turturro mixes standard concert renditions with dream plays and acted-out mini-
melodramas staged in the streets. With his musicians and vocalists, he blends the worlds of opera, jazz, pop, and fado, reinforcing the idea that Neapolitan culture has always been a glorious mishmash, and never more so than now, when ethnic mixing is rampant. (One Neapolitan artist explains that he feels like “everybody and nobody at the same time.”)

Turturro opens the film by telling us: “There are places where you go to and once is enough – and then there is Napoli.” A second-generation Italian-American – his mother came from Sicily, his father from Bari – he speaks Italian to the various artists he introduces us to and clearly they regard him as one of their own. He dives right into each musical sequence as if it was the centerpiece attraction. Turturro is an equal-opportunity enthusiast, which is easy to be when the attractions are as revivifying as they are here. (During some of the numbers, he even lets the microphone dip into the frame, as if to remind us that his filmmaking is part of the theatrical experience, too.)

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