Monday, June 20, 2011

To die of music: John Turturro's Italy/USA co-production PASSIONE makes NYC debut

To die of love: You've heard that phrase, right? Romeo and Juliet, etc. But to die of music? Until I'd viewed John Turturro's singular achievement PASSIONE,  I would not have imagined that possible. Now, I'm not so sure. Here we have music brought to visual and aural life so immediate and dramatic -- full of love, hate, joy and sorrow, not to mention a sexuality that is stunning in its pride and openness -- that even death not only loses its proverbial sting but seems a piker by comparison to this music. Watching Passione (just as it seemed while watching many of the Italian movies that made up the recently concluded Open Roads series at the FSLC), you understand again why -- as concerns films that breathe life from every frame -- nobody does it quite like the Italians.

Mr Turturro, shown at right, has subtitled his new film "a musical adventure" and indeed it is: 23 songs -- of all sorts -- that are quintessentially Neapolitan. From within the soul of these diverse pieces pour out the culture and history of Naples, including its many invaders, from the Greeks and Arabs to the French, Spanish, Normans and Americans -- the latter during and after WWII. The filmmaker has cobbled together his mixed "concert" with only the briefest introduction and occasional break to hand us further information. But this is enough. The music (and the performance of it) is the thing here, and it ranges from the simply good/interesting to the utterly staggering. I am trying to recall when I have seen such full-out, emotionally rich song renditions, but I come up empty.

Numbers like Era de Maggio, performed by Misia (above), accompanied by Avion Travel, with Peppe Servillo also on vocals (he's the brother of Toni Servillo; you'll spot the resemblance), and Malafemmena with Massimo Ranieri (below) and Lina Sastri are among the most dramatic, full-bodied songs imaginable. And they are sung to perfection here.

We see Signore Ranieri in his younger days, too, as a teen heart-throb, and we hear O Sole Mio performed in so many ways, including by the famous Sergio Bruni, with the beauty of the song always at the forefront.

Comme Facette Mammeta gets a rendition by Pietra Montecorvino (above) that is astonishing (it is also danced to erotic climax by a bevy of gorgeous young women). Where in the world would you see anything like this except, I guess, in Naples? Gennaro Cosmo Parlato's number -- Maruzzella -- sung at the beach in a voice from which sorrow drips off every note is another astounding piece of music and acting. Really: You just don't see/hear stuff like this anywhere else.

Perhaps the most bracing and certanly the most riveting section is devoted to Naples post-WWII, with the influx of US soldiers, some of them black. We hear from James Senese about his own intriguing history, along with his voice and sax on the title song Passione; then the section ends with an incredible combination of the old standard Al Dexter's Pistol Packing Mama and Tammurriata Nera, featuring Peppe Barra, Max Casella (shown above, center) and M'Barka Ben Taleb.

Passione is not Mr. Turturro's first musical. In 2005 he made Romance and Cigarettes -- a movie I remember enjoying quite a lot, and yet I cannot recall a single musical number from it. That will not be the case with his latest film -- the music from which is unforget-table. Given his editing skill on display here and his (and his performers') ability to make the music and lyrics live and pulsate, I can't help wondering what he might be able to do with a Broad-way musical transfer-red to film: Rags, for instance -- one of the most emotional, gorgeous and under-rated musicals to have graced the stage. I hope Turturro gets his chance to do more with music on film.
This guy's got the gift.

Passione opens this Wednesday, June 22, for a two-week run at New York City's Film Forum -- after which, I hope it plays all over creation. Click here to see the most current listing of playdates, cities and theaters. And then go see the movie.

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