Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

Music and Naples and John Turturro.


The film Passione, directed by John Turturro, is a dramatized documentary about Neapolitan music. It blends spoken word, songs and playful vignettes all set in the streets and boudoirs of Naples in an attempt to reintroduce American and international audiences to a music that they used to know or believed that they knew, and then forgot. The film takes an unusual approach: instead of focusing on the legacy of the music and the far reaching influence that it has had over the years, Turturro and his artistic collaborators in Naples present the state of the music and the city today. It is a jarring collection of images and sounds, the faces and voices of local people who are extraordinary in their oddities. Interspliced with the music are interludes of people from the most humble backgrounds doing strange

Pietra Montecorvino. Click here for more info

street theater type things. It is a film that had to be made by an Italian American rather than an Italian because it is unafraid turn an unflinching camera on the injured souls of Naples, with their uninhibited extroversion, something that is inextricably part of the music, but which is intensely embarrassing to most Italians. And being a part of the independent film community, which thrives on this type of stuff, Turturro perhaps errs on the side of enthusiasm: the film celebrates the deformities and gap-tooth decadence of Naples almost to the exclusion of any images of the more civilized aspects of Neapolitan culture, which also have had much to do with the development of this music. Baroque facades are only shown splashed with graffitti and teeming marketplaces with heaping garbage are more important than all the concert halls and theaters of the city. There is much text about the sexual passion of histrionic lovers, and several songs that correspond to this, but little room for the musical expressions of true love. However, the music is excellent, it is a pot-pourri of songs that run the gamut from old standards to jazz improvisation, to modern popular songs. The best of them showcase the evolving sounds of a newly cosmopolitan Naples that has recently regained the stature of a Mediterranean melting pot that it lost for a couple of centuries. Even such traditional songs as O Sole Mio are presented in various unusual ways, in this case as a medley beginning with old footage of Sergio Bruni singing it in its standard form, then on to a young Massimo Ranieri singing

M'Barka Ben Taleb. Click here for more info

it with a large pop orchestra in the 1960s and then the Tunisian-Neapolitan singer M’Barka Ben-Taleb interpreting it today in a bilingual Arabic-Italian rendition. The singers are also a surprise: they are mostly accomplished musicians but they are not among the most famous – there is no Gigi D’Alessio, no Lucio Dalla, or Anna Oxa (though there is a very talented Loredana Bertè sound-alike in Pietra Montecorvina). The only well known singers are the Portuguese singer Misia, whose soulful fado style gives a beautiful resonance to the melodies, and Massimo Ranieri, the veteran singer who has been dedicating himself in recent years to a reinterpretation of Neapolitan music in a new context.

As I said, this film had to be made by an Italian American and not an Italian. And it had to be a modern, independent minded Italian American who has come to revisit his heritage after a long journey everywhere else. Neapolitan music does not have many champions in the larger community of Italians either inside Italy or out. It wasn’t always that way: The music has been developing for centuries and has had a lot of success in the past. It influenced classical music through opera and other musical styles that were developing during the 17th and 18th centuries when Naples was a rich musical center. In the nineteenth century the Neapolitan song became the prototype of modern pop music. Sheet music for the latest popular songs were sold on the streets and in shops in the city, creating a dynamic of hit songs, singing stars and standard repertoires. In the early twentieth century this pop style spread internationally through the many songs that gained worldwide currency because of this early pop music infrastructure and because of the wealth of talented and highly trained composers, singers and performers that recorded and traveled throughout Europe and the Americas. And the tradition has never faltered. Neapolitan music has been developing and enriching its repertoire of music, its pantheon of composers and artists throughout the past century, and is as alive and vibrant today as ever in the past.

The CD at Amazon

Yet, in New York City during the last few decades, where one could find stacks and stacks of world music recordings in the great music emporiums like Tower Records or J & R Music World, it was always nearly impossible to find anything from Naples, other than tacky “souvenirs of Santa Lucia” type compilations by pop orchestras – this, in a metropolitan area with over a million people of Southern Italian descent. Now that music buying has moved on-line, the situation is much the same at the big american websites. Just see what you get if you search “Neapolitan” on any of the music store websites. Why is this? Why don’t Americans and Italian Americans in particular have any taste for Neapolitan music? One could point to the Anglo-conformist pressures which were particularly ferocious in the case of Southern and Eastern Europeans in the xenophobic hysteria of the first half of the Twentieth Century. But to put the blame there would be a cop-out. The fact is, it is nearly impossible to find Neapolitan music anywhere outside of Naples nowadays, in cities like Paris or Berlin, where there are large Italian communities. Even in Milan or Florence, in Italy itself, one has to search hard for more than just a smattering of the most famous singers. So obviously, the problem goes much deeper.

The DVD at Barnes & Noble

In reality, Naples itself is an embarrassment to Italians. Many people see it almost as a festering wound that drains the economy and the civil society of the country as a whole with its corruption, inefficiency and Camorra organized crime. It has come to symbolize something retrogressive, decadent, dirty and perhaps worst of all, a place with trashy bad taste – in a country that wants to see itself as modern, sophisticated and progressive. And it gets worse: the people who listen to ethnic and world music both inside Italy and out, are generally multiculturalists, on the left and progressive politically. For them, it is difficult to relate to Neapolitans politically, as the Parthenopean city has a reputation for revanchist attitudes and conservative reflexes. There are constant tales of intolerance and xenophobic violence coming out of Naples and the surrounding region even today and they feed a prejudice that already existed about the city. Whereas it is very PC and trendy to listen to Bulgarian monks and Andean pan-flutes, the music of Naples has a decidedly reactionary stink to it.

Then on top of this, the problem is compounded by the negative effects of the success of the past: Neapolitan music has come to mean smaltzy tunes warbled by someone’s tipsy old Uncle Mario at family gatherings, some treacly cliches of nostalgia.  Funiculi, Funicula! The combined weight of all these negative attitudes has made the music almost a pariah in the modern world.

Even the Neapolitans have a love/hate relationship with their tragic and beautiful, culturally rich and tacky city. The film ends with the song Napul’e by Pino Daniele. This iconic song from the 1970s has become a modern anthem for many Neapolitans. It is sung at San Paolo Stadium the way Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York is sung at Yankee Stadium. Here are the lyrics, with their melancholy and ambiguity, in Neapolitan dialect and in English:

Napule E’ :

Napule è mille culure

Napule è mille paure

Napule è a voce de’ criature che

saglie chianu chianu

e tu sai ca’ nun si sulo

Napule è nu sole amaro

Napule è addore e’ mare

Napule è na’ carta sporca e nisciuno

se ne importa e

ognuno aspetta a’ sciorta

Napule è na’ camminata

int’ e viche miezo all’ate

Napule è tutto nu suonno e a’ sape tutto o’ munno ma

nun sanno a’ verità.

Napule è mille culure..

 Naples Is

Naples is a thousand colors

Naples is a thousand fears

Naples is the voice of a child

that slowly slowly rises up

and then you know you’re not alone.

Naples is a bitter sun

Naples is the smell of the sea,

Naples is a dirty scrap of paper

and no one could care less,

they’re just waiting for the turn of luck.

Naples is a stroll through the crowded narrow alleys.

Naples is a dream that everyone knows so well,

but they don’t know the truth.

Naples is a thousand colors.

A film like Passione, helps to show a more nuanced and culturally evolving Naples than we are used to seeing. This beautiful tribute to Neapolitan music can go a long way toward changing hardened attitudes. But a vicious cycle must be broken first. There is no proven market for such a film and so it is a hard sell to get it into local art houses, and there is no young audience for Neapolitan music, so the new artists remain unknown. Hopefully, the situation can be changed one small step at a time. In the meantime, there is always the internet for those who, like John Turturro can move outside the box, pass through all the Bulgarian monks and Andean pan-flutists and reconnect with this culture in a new, 21st century way.

Other Links:

About the Soundtrack

A great interview with John Turturro at Sundance

Other posts about Naples on my blogs:

The photography of Norma Rossetti

The photography of Federico Garolla

The Last Pulcinella

Pappi Corsicato: Il seme della discordia

Scampia and South Bronx: Gomorra


August 25, 2011 Posted by | cinema, music | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Last Pulcinella: watching Massimo Ranieri fall between two stools

The film L’Ultimo Pulcinella was screened at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in Paris on February 8, 2010 and was heartily welcomed by the very indulgent audience of Italo-philes. However, if this film is going to make it outside of the most uncritically sympathetic audiences it will need a lot of luck. The director, Maurizio Scaparro, was at the screening and he said in the introductory remarks that the film is based on a scenario by Roberto Rossellini, a script that was unfilmable because of the odd juxtaposition of plot elements, one day in Naples, next day in Paris. He was determined to see Massimo Ranieri in the lead role, and he eventually decided to adapt the story to modern circumstances. It is an interesting and fruitful exercise, however, the problems with the script are still quite evident, and may have even been exacerbated by the adaptation. What results is a film that is not really neo-realism, nor is it musical theater, but rather something lost in between.

Massimo Ranieri

The Last Pulcinella stars Massimo Ranieri, the renowned Italian singer and actor. His early fame in the 1960s was with pop songs in the style of San Remo, where he twice won the top prize. In the 1970s he started in a new direction with his album entitled ‘O Surdato Nammurato” a live recording of one of his theatrical performances of Neapolitan sketches. This album, with its cover photo of him dressed in the white pajama costume of Pulcinella, has become a classic and it established the future trajectory of his career. Today he is best known as an interpreter the classic Neapolitan repertoire, and he has come out with several more collections of Neapolitan standards, the latest one in 2009. Many of these songs are over one hundred years old and they have been interpreted over and over again by innumerable singers from the most talented to the ridiculous. His renditions are superb, as he uses his clear and sharp voice to bring out the bel canto qualities of these songs, while at the same time making them enjoyable for the modern ear. In this film Ranieri plays a custom made role, as Michelangelo, a Neapolitan actor who performs Pulcinella. His voice and abilities are as breathtaking as ever, but alas, the years have erased Michelangelo’s youthful good looks. This does not stop him, though, and he continues to evolve and when he arrives in working class Paris in search of his missing son, he wants to bring the theatrical traditions to a new generation of performers. Ranieri’s Pulcinella performances in the film are wonderful. His ability to become the Commedia dell’Arte character has been perfected over a long career and this shows. Unfortunately, it is not enough to make the film palatable.

One glaring problem is the lack of veracity. There are plot twists and little conflict-resolutions throughout that conveniently fall from the sky without rhyme or reason. All of the points of tension: Michelangelo’s son’s escape from Naples, the suspicions of the elderly actress toward the immigrant neighbors, and especially the belligerence of the police force and the glimpses of police brutality, are dangled for a moment in front of our eyes, then blithely forgotten. The discovery of an empty theater just waiting for the protagonist to arrive, and the impressive artistic talent of all the neighborhood characters who just happen to saunter in, are elements that would work fine in a Broadway musical, where the audience doesn’t really care about all the niceties of logic – just get to the music, but they are absolutely insulting to the intelligence of someone watching a film that is supposed to be “realism.” This story calls on Deus ex Machina contrivances so often that it hardly seems worth it for Deus ever to climb back into his Machina, God might as well just hang around on the set so that he’ll be right there for his cue. Or better yet, cut out all the stillborn subplots and concentrate on the performers. The plot would be tolerable if it led to music, for instance, something for the Colombina character (Margot Dufrene) to sing in explanation of her sudden infatuation with Francesco, played by a severely underutilized Domenico Balsamo. The story is a variation of the old “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” formula from 1940s Hollywood, and as such calls out pitifully for big finale performance, which never materializes. How about letting Francesco or one of the other young males share the Pulcinella character with Ranieri to demonstrate how this tradition will be passed on to the next generation. Massimo Ranieri, also at the screening, said that he saw a bit of Pulcinella in all of the immigrant youths. Unfortunately, this never comes across in the film.

The Last Pulcinella needs to decide what it is: a story about the problems of multiethnic youths in the housing projects of the modern European metropolis, or a celebration of the blending of traditional European (here Neapolitan) art and the arts of the newcomers. I think it is clear that given the talent of Ranieri and all the young actors, the second option is the one that holds the most promise, and the scene in which Ranieri performs a classic song to African accompaniment should erase any doubts. And incidentally, there was no need to come all the way to Paris North to find racial intolerance, police brutality and frustrated, unemployed African youths with talent – they could have found all that by the truckloads right back home in Naples. Perhaps it is too late to save the film, but it is never too late for the stage. Could this someday make a successful stage musical? It is one that I would love to see.


February 9, 2010 Posted by | cinema, music, theater | , , , | 1 Comment

Pappi Corsicato’s Il Seme della Discordia. Discord Indeed.

I wanted to like the film, I really did. All the hype about the Neapolitan Almodovar was enticing, and the look, décor and colors of the preview clips were very promising. And who could resist a director named Pappi? But I knew something was wrong when the lead actress, Caterina Murino started talking at the meet and greet before the viewing. She was sitting right next to the director, and still she had the nerve to say, (I’m paraphrasing):
“It was really difficult at first to work with Pappi, but then we got a working relationship and ended up loving each other. It was impossible to play the roles as Pappi wanted. All of these actors all of them with lots of experience, were asked to act in ways that they had never acted before. When I saw the final product, after Pappi’s editing, it was not the film that I had acted in, so radically had he changed it. No more questions, please, let’s watch the film. Then if you still have questions, I’m sure Pappi will be glad to answer them.”

Nominate at Venice for the Golden Lion. They wanted to like him too.

Nominated at Venice for the Golden Lion. They wanted to like the film too.

She was like her last name: murino, like a wall.

The basic problem with the script is that one crucial element in the story is a rape. There is no way to make a rape humorous. Pappi did his best to minimize it by never actually mentioning the fact. That helped, but it remained the 800 pound gorilla in the room whenever the story took a humorous turn. There were ways to write the rape out of the story, perhaps amnesia or mistaken identities. I have it all figured out. Pappi, please consult me before signing off on any more problematic scripts.

There was also an emphasis on the wrong characters. We see way too much of her mother, and not enough of the flirty salesgirl and the gayboys at the café bar. They are the lighthearted (and lightheaded) characters that could make the comedy soar. It would also be more interesting to see more of the husband, and to get more involved in his problematic position. However, it’s not too late: these characters can all be developed in other scripts.

Il seme della discordia. Hmmm, I wonder what exactly was this seed of discord. Was it the baby, the situation, the actress, the director or just the script?

Alas, things could be much, much, much better. Corsicato is a really fine director with a great sense of comic timing and the subtleties of la commedia all’italiana. Recently he delighted his fans with a short film, made under the sponsorship of the Garofalo pasta company, and distributed exclusively on the web. Questione di gusti, or A Question of Taste is a remake of a sketch from a Dino Risi film from 1971 “Noi donne siamo fatte così.” It is a satire on the fetishes and manias of the nouveau riche, as they try to present themselves as wildly uninhibited. The couple brags about their sexual exploits to the whole company of guests at their party, then have it out with screams and pistol shots as soon as the guests are out the door. Without subtitles, the visuals are a pleasure in themselves:

October 14, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , | 1 Comment

Scampia and South Bronx: burnt more by sin or by indifference?

The Scampia district on the outskirts of Naples has become infamous as the symbol of urban degradation, crime and despair, much like the South Bronx of the 1970s. And like that New York City neighborhood, there is much truth in this characterization, but also much that has been conveniently ignored or misunderstood. Is Scampia being unfairly labeled with the clichés of despair, just to give people an excuse to turn away?

Roberto Saviano‘s 2006 book, “Gomorra” brought the situation of this area to the consciousness of a wider public.gomorrahbook

Saviano described the activities of the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia, in a wider context over a long period of time, but it is the physical focus on Scampia that people remember. The open wounds of this impoverished neighborhood came to symbolize the rock hard cruelty and oppression of organized crime. The visual world of Scampia came alive with the movie version of “Gomorrah,” directed by Matteo Garrone. His setting of the story inside the pharaonic public housing projects, called “Le Vele” was searingly iconic. The film is a burning tool with a sharp edge that cuts the images of urban decay into the spectator’s brain, just as Saviano intended to cut his words into the reader’s mind. The objective for both artists was to bring the nation to action in order to resolve problems and it was brave and powerful work. However, too often, the effect is to make people look away with disgust, and to blame the victims, the people of the Naples slums, for their nightmare.gomorrafilm

The “photogenic” aspect of the problem could not be denied. Photographers came to snap pictures, some sensationalistic, others with sensitivity and care. To this latter group belongs the photographer Norma Rossetti. Her images concentrate on the faces of the residents posing in their surroundings, places that are sometimes squalid and mean, and at other times sumptuous and fantastical in the way that the poor transform kitsch and throwaway objects into dreamy articles of wonderment. Her subjects can be laughed at by those who choose to keep these people at a distance. The odd material fetishes can be reason enough to consider the residents unreachable and beyond help. But that is a shame, because these people speak directly to the camera, in a language that is really not so hard to understand, and they speak about their humanity, their fragility and their love of life.

Click for more about Norma Rossetti's Scampia

Click for more about Norma Rossetti's Scampia

The same was true in the South Bronx, where burning buildings, and sky high crime rates were considered the norm in the 1970s, and people simply turned their backs. If the South Bronx was ever mentioned at all, it was as a setting for sensationalistic films or as a symbol of the greed of slumlords or the corruption of city government. However, that was only a part of the story. There was a throbbing heart at the center of that dying neighborhood, and there were tens of thousands of people who were condemned to live that agony. They suffered, but they did not consider their suffering to be in vain. With the help of some enlightened city programs, which rebuilt lowcost housing, cleared out filthy vacant lots to plant gardens and used favorable tax policies to attract small businesses, the South Bronx was able to come back from the brink in some small but nevertheless spectacular ways.

Recently, the New York Times put together a photographic presentation using the photography of David Gonzalez to show the South Bronx during 1979. But they do not show the devastation of the infrastructure, instead, they show people, the beating heart at the center of it all. Photographs like this were not widely seen in 1979, because they were not considered particularly interesting. There was nothing newsworthy about a bunch of kids laughing, or people dancing on the sidewalk; what people wanted to see was the spectacular failure, the decay, the reason that they could just write off this place and concern themselves elsewhere. David Gonzalez had returned to the South Bronx to work in a school, teaching elementary school children to tell stories with photography. He says,

“Now, teaching children was interesting, because they just photographed their world. And even though they lived in this messed up neighborhood, they photographed utterly ordinary things, their parents at home, their kid sisters sleeping, their friends playing in the streets. And it taught me to just look at that. And so, I really didn’t photograph a lot of the rubble, if you will, I photographed the life that persisted in the middle of all this. And it was a really important lesson, that in this place that had been written off as hopeless, I found people just moving on.”

It may come as a shock to some people, but there is a certain pride in the people that live in even the most destitute circumstances, and a feeling of community that can be more powerful that anything else. David Gonzalez ends his slide show with these words:

“Having come from there, and more importantly, having gone back there, it’s something to be proud of, actually. And it’s not pride in the sense that I survived this tough place. It’s the pride that, I’m still part of this place in a very essential way.”

David Gonzalez South Bronx Photo Feature.
Perhaps if people had seen more photographs like these in 1979, they would have made more of an effort to help the Bronxites pull their neighborhoods up “by the bootstraps,” and perhaps have thus saved some of the lives that were lost through drugs and crime in the slow climb out of the depths.

Can the same be true for Scampia? Through a government redevelopment program, some of the enormous structures of “Le Vele” have been demolished, in an attempt to make the community less dense and more manageable. But although this may have been a necessary first step, the solution will not come with the simple destruction of the offending brick and mortar. A whole culture of pessimism and hopelessness has to change. That is beginning to happen, very, very slowly. Just as in South Bronx, there are several initiatives in Scampia which are using art training, information technology and music to give children a door to the wider world of culture and self esteem.alibruciate

Earlier this year, a book by Davide Cerullo, “Ali Bruciate, I bambini di Scampia” appeared in Italy. It told the familiar story of children caught up in the drug trafficking and petty crime in the housing projects of Scampia. But in this partly autobiographical work, Cerullo aimed to give a more nuanced view of the lives of these young people, one in which there are alternatives, and there are exits that lead to sunlight and healthy lives. In April, 2009 he gave an interview to the Italian weekly Panorama, in which he echoed the words with of David Gonzales.

“E invece ai lettori che non sono di Scampia che messaggio vorrebbe far arrivare?”
“Che a Scampia, alle Vele in particolare, abita anche tanta gente perbene, solidale, che vive realmente ogni giorno in comunione con gli altri. Solo che bisogna dare a questa gente uno straccio di opportunità, un’alternativa. E allora si potranno fare davvero miracoli. Io senza Scampia nel cuore non posso vivere. Vede quest’area verde qui intorno? Un tempo era tutta campagna e io bambino venivo ad aiutare mio padre che pascolava le pecore. Per me questo resta il quartiere più bello di Napoli. Vorrei che lo fosse per tutti.”

The translation:

Panorama Question:
“What is the message about Scampia that you would like your readers to come away with?”

Cerullo Answer:
“That in Scampia, and especially in “Le Vele,” there are many good people, that live every day in perfect harmony with each other. All that these people need is just a little bit of opportunity, an alternative. With that they would be able to perform miracles. I would not be able to live without Scampia in my heart. You see this bit of greenery here? This used to be open country, and when I was very small I came here to help my father herd his sheep. For me this is the most beautiful neighborhood in all of Naples. I wish it were that for everyone.”

The full article here.

in a video clip for FuoriTV, he says that he wanted to write about the children of Scampia because it is them that pay the highest price in the downgraded quality of life of this place. But he wrote his book to push people more to action, the people that claim to be doing something, but really do little. Like Saviano’s book, his work is being read in prisons, but in this case, it is helping the people in those places to find a reason not to give up hope.

The video interview here.

Today, the South Bronx is coming back to health little by little. And tomorrow… Scampia? It will happen, someday. The question is, when? And how many more people will have to suffer and die to make it come true?

Related Articles:

Gomorrah: A book and a film describe the Modern Plagues of Naples.

Naples on the Edge: Photography of Norma Rossetti.

October 13, 2009 Posted by | literature | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments