One of Europe's oldest cities, a hotbed of crime and the birthplace of Pope Urban VI and pizza, Naples is also the most musical city in a musical country, which is what actor-cum-director John Turturro celebrates in "Passione," his unconventional but absorbing documentary about Neapolitan music. The variety of what Turturro has captured in Naples perhaps shouldn't be surprising, given the city's importance as a port -- one hears vestiges of flamenco, Portuguese fado and, of course, opera (Caruso was born there, too). What is most striking about the film, however, is the pure, naked emotion in the performances and a rawness that makes Turturro's film not just a musical journey, but a psycho-socio-sexual portrait of a place and its people.
The proximity of a smoking volcano to Naples is fitting -- the rendition of "Vesuvius" by Monica Pinto and the band Spakka-Neapolis 55 is incendiary, and a fitting intro to what will follow. Many of the performances are recorded live, others obviously dubbed later to scenes shot before obviously bewildered Neapolitans. In one scene, on a beach, the writhings of the performer are met by gaping stares from sunbathers who obviously thought the singer was having a fit. Other moments are pure fun -- three elderly brothers who run a Neapolitan music company and reflect on the history and character of their city's music, hardly agree on anything.
Turturro allows the music to play -- there's a sense of confidence in the performers and their songs and a trust that the viewer will be enchanted. It's well-founded. The songs themselves are performed within mini-narratives that suggest music videos, but without the embellishments. Turturro, who appears only briefly in the movie, knows he's got the goods and doesn't need to impose any distractions.