John Turturro's 'Passione' offers an encounter with the music of Naples, Italy.

Turturro Makes a Case for 'Passione'

Max Goldberg September 29, 2011

John Turturro shares his passion for the Neapolitan songbook.

Actor John Turturro follows his bloodlines back to Naples for Passione, an enraptured tour of one of the world’s hotspots of song. The Neapolitan people are of course famous for their passions, with Mt. Vesuvius standing as a convenient metonym for the fiery temperament: “a volatile compound of hilarity, raucous grief, anger, and consternation over every one of life’s details—a culture of sublime complaint,” in the words of San Francisco author W.S. Di Piero. One instinctively leaps to opera thinking about the musical extension of this disposition, but Turturro’s film, which opens at SF Film Society | New People Cinema this Friday after recently being held over at New York’s Film Forum, focuses instead on the city’s popular songbook. “More or less between 1200 and 1950, [the] songs were chosen by the people,” according to one old hand, though, there’s more to it than that. Turturro explains that Neapolitan singers began spinning their songs as narratives in response to a government policy that taxed singers at a higher rate than actors. “A very Neapolitan solution,” Turturro grins.

A jacketed Turturro waxes professorial at the outset regarding the cultural significance of music, but Passione doesn’t plum the academic depths with a catalogue of musicologists and cultural historians. Passione is built for the performances, and these are elaborately staged in magnificent courtyards and churches. A strong element of fantasy runs through the stylized camera choreography of these already bombastic songs. The most successful of the numbers evoke a vivacious street theater. A prostitute’s prideful verses and a pair of lovers’ empty promises for one another reverberate through the alleyways—fitting since the lyrics are all about letting private passions and heartache burst out into the open.

Passione steers clear of the dominant trend toward the biographical in music documentary, opting instead for a more impressionistic structure of interview and history sandwiched between performances. As in a classical musical, the intensified space of performance determines the flow of the film. This allows the performers to retain a powerful aura of mystery, though their occasional musings are invariably revealing. One named Raiz speaks of the Neapolitan imagination as being the result of different invasions throughout history. “Growing up here means being all these things mixed together…everybody and nobody at the same time.”

More powerful is the testimony of polymath James Senese, the outcome of a World War II romance between a Neapolitan woman and African American serviceman. Though he never met his father, he feels a strong musical kinship to this side of his heritage (the proof is in his ripping saxophone solo). M’Barka Ben Taleb’s performances reflect a different immigrant experience, her ululations and Arabic verses in a rousing “Pistol Packin’ Mama” pointing to Italy’s long, complex relationship with Northern Africa. You need to consult Ben Taleb’s website to learn she’s Italian Tunisian, but Turturro subtly makes the point about the changing face of Neapolitan music by arriving at her version of “O Sole Mio” from classic renditions by Sergio Bruni and Massimo Ranierei.

There are many other highlights in Passione. Fausto Cigliano accompanies himself on guitar for “Catari” in a dizzying church, drawing out the sense of melodrama embedded in the local religion. And accomplished Portuguese fado singer Mísia clearly has a strong grasp for the more tormented Neapolitan lyrics. Her clenched rendition of “Indifferentemente” conveys the Neapolitan songbook’s disputatious take on love as well as anything in the film.

It’s a transporting introduction to the music, and clearly a very personal interest for Turturro. One line of his opening monologue stands out in this regard: “These songs are drenched in contradiction and irony that’s often lost when they traveled abroad and turned into sentimental ballads of longing.” Passione is the film of a second-generation American recovering his roots and reveling in them.