Film Review: Naples '44

Overloaded with potent images, absurd humor and affecting tales, this admiring documentary portrait of World War II-era Neapolitans can’t be fully digested in just one viewing.
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A highly unusual documentary, Francesco Patierno’s Naples ’44 illustrates scenes from Norman Lewis’ memoir of the same title—a discerning valentine to Neapolitans—by amalgamating wartime archival footage, clips from 1950s and 1960s movies set in Naples, and excerpts from Lewis’s text read as narration by actor Benedict Cumberbatch.

A British intelligence officer, Lewis was part of the Allied forces’ 1943 invasion of Salerno, in occupied southern Italy, which liberated Naples. Published in 1978, Lewis’ memoir is a resurrection of the diary he kept during the year he spent in Naples in the aftermath of the invasion. He records the terrible destruction in the city and the horrifying behavior of Allied officers toward Italian civilians, shocking numbers of whom had been forced to resort to thievery or prostitution in order to survive. Yet his reportage is not completely dark-toned, as it is spiced by descriptions of numerous absurd duties he had to perform in his surprisingly undefined role there, such as gathering “intelligence” on any Italian women his fellow British soldiers had expressed interest in marrying: Those who had worked as prostitutes had to be deemed unsuitable.

The theme of the documentary’s anecdotal narrative is Lewis’ deep admiration for the Neapolitans’ remarkable resilience. He observes that despite their wretched conditions—extreme poverty, loss of family members, homes, jobs, the devastation of their economy, and the rampant spread of syphilis and typhus—instead of succumbing to hopelessness or despair, they exhibited industrious creativity and an upbeat, eager approach to surviving, topped with an exuberant display of self-satisfaction in having cleverly done so. Profoundly, Lewis connects the wondrousness of the Neapolitans to their striking dualities: They are superstitious, but ingenious; pained, yet joyous; beautiful, while grotesque; and both ordinary and strange.

Lewis’ observant, poetic text is so rich in exhilarating imagery, emotion and food for thought, however, that we feel overloaded by the addition of visual stimuli from the shuddering vintage film footage of invading soldiers, starving Neapolitan street kids, disease-ravaged adults and the erupting Vesuvius—even though Patierno keenly matches the footage to the wide-ranging topics and details of the narration. The clips from dramatic Italian and Hollywood movies, though serving up a jarringly different aesthetic, are easier to take in as they are self-contained and don’t require us to split our attention between Lewis’ all-consuming text and the equally demanding cinematic images. The documentary also incorporates contemporary footage of a contemplative man wandering through present-day Naples, presumably representing Lewis, who did indeed return to Italy in the 1970s to revisit the places he had spent time in during the war. These peaceful segments, accompanied by enticing original music by Andrea Guerra, function like a sorbet course to cleanse our palette and prepare us for the next barrage of sights and words. About halfway through the intriguing 85-minute documentary, I abandoned the task of trying to absorb everything Patierno was offering in one dose. This is a film that must be seen more than once.

The documentary ends sadly, when we learn that Lewis is being transferred elsewhere. The news comes too quickly to allow him time to say goodbye to all the Neapolitan characters he had befriended during his stay. This distressed him and he concluded, “A year among the Italians had converted me to such an admiration for their humanity and culture that I realized were I given the chance to be born again and to choose the place of my birth, Italy would be the country of my choice.”

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