"Passione: A Musical Adventure," John Turturro's guide to bella Napoli

Posted: August 05, 2011

'There are places that you go to, and once is enough," John Turturro offers at the beginning of Passione: A Musical Adventure. "And then there is Napoli."

As puckish tour guide and ardent fan, the actor and director strolls the decayed majesty of Naples - graffiti-scrawled, garbage-strewn, but still somehow magnificent - stopping to listen to singers sing, drummers drum, to musicians muse on the meaning of it all.

An unabashed celebration of a city with a multicultural musical heritage - Arab, African, and Eastern influences, French and Spanish, and, with Italy's occupation at the end of World War II, American - Passione is a surprise and a delight from beginning to end. The canzone Napoletana is marked by keening emotion, irony and romance, and an almost operatic assertiveness. There is nothing meek about this music - it will either break your heart with its lilting sadness, or get you to your feet dancing with joy.

No need to know Italian to catch the drift of these songs. Yes, there are subtitles, but they aren't really necessary. All you have to do is read the faces of the featured performers - Pietra Montecorvino, James Senese (whose father was an African American GI), Peppe Barra, Misia, M'Barka ben Taleb, Fausto Cigliano, Rosario Fiorello - and see the ache of love, the jealousy, desire, anger, and ardor pulsing through the song. And Turturro digs through the archives to find recordings, and televised concerts, by some of the tradition's great forebears: Enrico Caruso, Sergio Bruni, Massimo Ranieri, Renato Carosone.

Turturro could have used a writer here and there - his on-camera pronouncements ("Napoli is a very, very, very unusual place") can fall short. But there's nothing disappointing about the music, captured in clubs and on street corners, or music-video style on beaches and dunes, in front of battered but proud old buildings, the gargoyles and gods half-hidden by clotheslines of laundry. The soulfulness of the song, the spirit of a community, the paradox and intoxicating beauty here . . . It's something to savor, something sublime.

Passione: A Musical Adventure ***1/2 (Out of four stars)

Directed by John Turturro. With Max Casella, Lina Sastri, M'Barka Ben Taleb, James Senese, and others. In Italian with subtitles, and in English. Distributed by Abramorama.

Running time: 1 hour, 32 mins.

Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz Bourse

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/

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