Abel Ferrara’s Napoli Napoli Napoli is as rambling and all over the place as his previous foray into documentary filmmaking, Chelsea on the Rocks. This time his approach is the same: talking-head interviews haphazardly mixed with staged reenactments, with some archival images thrown in at random. But compared to a rebel director like Werner Herzog, who weds his similar restlessness to an amazingly diverse appetite, Ferrara seems just an addict-jumpy auteur with a frustratingly immature and narrow vision; sex and violence, drugs, and the arts are pretty much all he’s interested in. Which is why after about 15 minutes into Napoli Napoli Napoli, you find yourself wondering why he doesn’t just stick to fiction instead.
Though Ferrara’s doc fancies itself an investigative look at the human fallout from the mafia’s stronghold in Naples, Napoli Napoli Napoli is no far-reaching Gomorrah. Ferrara probes drug dealers at the Pozzuoli women’s prison and the guy who runs the local youth center (that includes programs for both addicts and artists, of course). He stages men’s prison scenes and a clunky fictional storyline involving young mobsters preparing to take out a traitor. There’s even a subplot involving a streetwalker that runs out on her drunken family, which is interspersed with glimpses of religious icons; think Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” video with a gratuitous rape scene.
Residents discuss the violence always waiting to erupt, and the dilapidated housing projects where poverty leads to crime. One guy suggests that the clan wars are really drug wars—battles over nothing other than money. An older man talks about how the “errors” of the state led to its citizens becoming thuggish people. Since the state doesn’t provide services or jobs, the residents have to rely on one another—and crime. Another elderly activist articulately explains that before the bodies pile up, there are other “deaths”—of hopes and dreams and young people’s consciences.
So what separates Naples from any other inner city, its gangs and peacemakers? As the film comes to a close with Ferrara on stage singing and strumming his guitar to the tune of “King of New York,” one thing becomes crystal clear: We’ve seen this all before—and in much better form.
Napoli Napoli Napoli will screen as part of Anthology Film Archives’s series “Abel Ferrara in 21st Century.” For more information, click here.