passione-posterIs this film available for rent on Netflix Instant and/or through the iTunes Store? Passione is available for rent through both Netflix Instant and the iTunes Store.

Please Note: This review is not about Andrea Bocelli’s latest album, which is also entitled Passione. If you have found your way to this review thinking you would be reading coverage of Bocelli, I am sorry (actually, not really) to disappoint you.

I’m sure you have seen a famous and respected actor romping through some mindless, action movie and wondered why in hell this actor could even fathom to accept a role that is so clearly beneath his God-given talents? Samuel L. Jackson in Snakes on a Plane and Sphere come immediately to mind. It could very well be that the actor lacks the ability to discern between good and bad material. However, I like to give actors far more credit than that. In fact, in most instances, actors sign up to star in big-budget popcorn films so that they can remain marketable and prolong their careers. Also, unlike small, indie films, big-budget films pay well and they enable actors the freedom to make those smaller films that they are really attracted to.

John Turturro is a case in point. In recent years, Turturro has been in Michael Bay’s lucrative series of Transformers films. Obviously, I can only at best guess what Mr. Turturro’s intentions were, but I am confident that his decision was based mostly to ensure career longevity and to provide him with greater financial freedom to make projects closer to his heart. In 2010, John Turturro did just that. He directed and wrote a musical documentary called Passione, a film about the 800-year musical tradition of Naples, Italy.

Passione is a fascinating film and unlike anything I have seen in recent years. In a nutshell that does little service toward conveying the film’s message, Passione is essentially a musical travelogue about the city of Naples (pronounced “Napoli” in Italian), Italy. Shot entirely in Naples, John Turturro showcases some of today’s best Italian singers who come from Naples in a series of music videos that I assume were written by Turturro. In between the musical performances, Turturro interviews Naples residents and musicians and provides archival historical footage of the city and the city’s historic musicians. Turturro appears in the film from time to time to serve as a commentator, social tour guide, and he even cameos in a hilarious part during one of the later music performances.

So why does music figure so prominently in Naples? Taxes. A long time ago, singers in Naples had to pay 3% higher taxes than theater actors. To get around this, singers developed a new narrative tradition of singing that involved storytelling so that they could be reclassified as actors and avoid paying the higher taxes.

Although unconventional, Passione is by no means an abstract, experimental film in the vein of works by David Lynch and Stan Brakhage. At the same time, do not expect a Rick Steves-style travelogue or a PBS-type conventional documentary that will trace the history of Naples’ musical traditions from the past to the present and give background histories on the artists who perform in the film. It does a little of all this, but what Turturro mainly does here is to utilize the camera and the art of music video to make the viewer experience and feel Naples’ musical culture. True to its title, Passione vibrantly and melodramatically immerses you into its music and the stories underlying Naples’ music.

Whether it was due to lack of time, money, or both, Passione feels a bit scattershot and rushed at times. For one, the film makes a noticeable number of technical mistakes that I was surprised went uncorrected. For example, many of the artists’ names appear on the screen when we see them perform, but there were a few whose names did not appear and I was left guessing as to who they were. The film is also disorganized as it jumps between musical performances, historic footage, and interviews. Undoubtedly, the performances are the main attraction of this film. However, I would have liked to have seen a coherent organization of the historic footage that more clearly explained Naples’ musical heritage. I enjoyed the interviews with the artists and citizens of Naples (watch especially for the 67-year old chef, whose memories and observations of Naples are mesmerizing, especially when he begins to sing a few bars of a song his mother used to sing to him when he was a child), but again, I kept waiting for some sort of structure, flow, or a more concrete theme to unify everything.

I think part of why Passione feels a little disorganized is due to the fact that Naples has served as a historic and cultural crossroads between Spanish, Middle Eastern, and European influences. It is difficult to pinpoint an exact genealogy from the historical hodgepodge that has influenced the city’s music. Consequently, Passione feels like a scrapbook than your typical documentary. By the end of the film, I could not really say that I was better informed about the story of Neopolitan music. On the other hand, you come away from the film feeling alive and invigorated by the vibrancy and energy of the city, its citizens, artists, and music and by the film’s free-ranging exploration.

Most of the artists featured in the film are fantastic. Most notably for me are Pietra Montecorvino, M’Barka Ben Taleb, Gennaro Cosmo Parlato, and Fiorello. The most memorable song, however, is Al Dexter’s dark “Pistol Packing Mama,” which also features Max Casella (Doogie Howser’s best friend!). That song was brought to Naples during World War II by American soldiers. The song is about the Italo-African-American babies that were left behind with their Italian mothers after the Americans left. One of those babies became a famous artist, James Senese, who performs in this film. The artists in the film sing mostly traditional songs in bizarre, but highly entertaining music videos that run the gamut of straight-up concert footage, to MTV-style flashiness, to soap opera melodramas. There are 23 songs performed in the film and each is unique in its style and context. As I stated before, Passione’s main attraction is the music and in that way the film feels like a very good concert movie.

Passione is a love letter and an educational documentary, but one that is far from being a straightforward one. The only other film that I can compare this to is another documentary, Wim Wenders-Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club. Like that in film, Passione paints its subject with a fantasy brush and gives us the impression that everyone in the city can bust out a song. Like Havana, which is where Buena Vista Social Club is set, Naples is presented as a place where music runs through the city’s veins and is all pervasive in every aspect of that city’s existence. I actually enjoyed this film more than Buena Vista Social Club and that might simply be because of how much more I enjoyed the performances and the music videos. Passione may not be perfect, but Turturro’s enthusiasm for its subject matter propels the film and the music will stay in your head for days afterward.

After the trailer, I have also posted below a few of my favorite performances in the film.