In adapting Norman Lewis’s much-lauded World War II memoir Naples ’44, director Francesco Patierno assembled a collection of archival and modern-day footage of Naples along with an array of clips from films to serve as the visual backdrop for the author’s words, which are delivered throughout via voiceover by Benedict Cumberbatch. Lewis’s reportage presents Naples in the aftermath of its Nazi occupation, when the city was in ruins and its people faced both moral and economic crises as they struggled to rebuild their lives. There’s an effortless lyricism to Lewis’s prose, birthed from his passionate curiosity and compassion for the people of Naples, but Cumberbatch’s reading from the military memoir is delivered in the soothing yet curiously lifeless monotone one might expect from an audiobook.
Naples ’44 does manage to capture the pathos of Lewis’s book during the stretches where Patierno relies most heavily on archival footage. Stunning scenes depicting the eruption of Mount Vesuvius are rare instances where the poetry of the film’s words and images merge to synergistic effect, capturing the wondrous natural power of the volcano and the horror of an already beleaguered city forced to endure further turmoil. On a far more intimate scale is footage from a ceremony devoted to celebrating the “blood miracle” of San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples. As crowds gather to witness the potential liquefaction of a sample of the saint’s blood, which supposedly determines their collective fate for the next year, it’s moving to see the hope and determination in everyone’s faces amid the rubble of their city.
The power of these flashes of unique cultural import, however, are too often undercut by sequences featuring an elderly stand-in for Lewis (the author passed away over a decade ago) wandering the streets of modern Naples. Aside from their allegiance to the hackneyed aesthetics of so many cable-TV history shows, these shots lazily attempt to tie the Naples of the past with that of the present. But it does so to no logical or emotional end since Cumberbatch’s voiceover is tied wholly to Lewis’s experiences during his time there in 1943 and ’44. Patierno’s overreliance on clips from films is a bit less egregious, particularly when he sticks to the middle segment of Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan and other neorealist films which present Naples and its people in the same raw, unadorned fashion as the archival footage. The integration of scenes from various Italian comedies or Mike Nichols’s Catch-22 is far more jarring, as the satirical bent of those films is directly at odds with the affectionate and fascinated tone that dominates Lewis’s prose.
Even at its best, Naples ’44 works most effectively as an advertisement for Lewis’s book, making room for the text to breathe and allowing the writer’s unique perspective to shine through. But much of the time, it’s far too scattershot, bouncing from one topic to the next with the carelessness of someone flipping through a book and reading from a random page. Although this leads to a number of fascinating anecdotes and historical facts about Naples during WWII—from the exceptionally high rate of women engaged in prostitution, to the Allied soldiers who contributed to a flourishing black market—the film’s presentation of them adds little to Lewis’s original text. Patierno’s pacing is too hurried to lend much depth or insight to such revelations. This leaves Naples ’44 feeling like an awkward collision of ill-fitting aesthetic choices that continually step on each other’s toes.