Expressionistic rather than analytical, Passione, John Turturro’s cinematic ode to the music of Naples, Italy, unfolds as a compendium of tuneful performances bracketed with the barest of contextualization. Derived from the Neapolitan operatic tradition that produced Fernando de Lucia and Enrico Caruso, informed by the diverse influences (American blues, Middle-Eastern tunes, Euro-pop dance tracks) absorbed by the oft-conquered town, the music highlighted in Turturro’s film is both refreshingly diverse and held together by a certain sameness of sound that, depending on taste and generosity, one could label either unifying or restrictive.
The same could be said of the visuals that the director constructs around the film’s music performances, mini music videos spotlighting local performers that range from dramatic soap-operatic narratives shot like slightly kitschy ‘70s art films (complete with zoom outs from a bedroom mirror) to non-plot-based performances imagined as vibrant street scenes set off against the beautiful/gritty backdrop of the city’s worn streets. But just as the music all sounds like a contemporization of a rich, operatic tradition, so too do these sequences, while highlighting a range of aesthetic options, evince a sort of uniform gloss, occasionally reducing the performances to the stuff of MTV Europe schmaltz.
Which is fine as far as it goes, and there’s no denying the vibrancy of much of the music as well as the obvious sexiness of a large number of the performances, but the richness that Turturro professes to find in the music, which he labels an art form of contradiction and irony, is likely to remain largely unapparent to the viewer. Only when enacting a sceneggiata, which the filmmaker describes as a “story built around a song,” do these contradictions emerge, as a man sings a duet with his wife who waits downstairs while he lies in bed with a lover.
Turturro’s contextualizing comes, like most of the film’s background information, after the performance, forcing us to appreciate the presentation on its intrinsic merits before understanding the tradition from which it derives. It’s a strategy the director employs several times throughout the film, frequently to intriguing effect, as when a singer explains the diversity of influence on Neapolitan music by invoking the city’s history, or when a blues musician—the son of a black American G.I. who he never met and a white, Neapolitan woman—discusses how he came to absorb African-American music after the post-WWII U.S. occupation. Moments like these make one wish for greater contextualization (as well as deeper inquiry into the reasons that music, per Turturro’s insistence, plays such a central role in Neapolitan life), but for those hip to the flash and vibrancy of the performances the film generously ladles out, there’s more than enough examples of this potent, ever evolving means of expression to send viewers rummaging in their attics for their old Caruso records.