An unabashed valentine to Neapolitan music, John Turturro’s Passione also serves as a reminder that other people’s love letters rarely make for engrossing reading. As an actor, Turturro brings wit and a healthy sense of absurdity to many of his roles, but his directorial efforts are notably lacking in self-awareness or restraint. At least Passione, unlike his out-of-control 2005 film Romance & Cigarettes, doesn’t feature a lip-synching James Gandolfini or a chorus of dancing garbagemen.
First things first: There’s a lot of great music in Passione, although it’s rarely adequately contextualized. Turturro’s onscreen narration is overheated but rarely instructive, favoring hyperbole over insight. Of one performer who brought a “danceable beat” to the region’s sound, Turturro observes, “Today, they’d call him a rapper”—which might be true, if “they” had no idea what rap was. The decision to favor lip-sync over live performance allows the film to take in Naples’ ancient, graffiti-specked streets, but it removes the opportunity to see the musicians Turturro features actually doing what they do.
Some of the film's most engaging performances, as well as its most poignant interviews, feature jazz saxophonist James Senese, whose absentee father was a black man from North Carolina. Unlike the other musicians, Sensese is photographed in his element, playing live (or quasi-live) in a nightclub, allowing him to put his own songs across rather than serving as a backdrop to Turturro’s flights of fancy. The producers who engaged Turturro to make a film on Neopolitan music suggested Buena Vista Social Club as a template, but Senese’s sequence is one of the few instances where the cultural and musical stories advance along the same track rather than shooting off in different directions.
Some of Turturro’s stagings are inspired, like using hip-hop-inflected dancers to emphasize the driving rhythms of “Comme Facette Mammeta” (translated as “How Your Mamma Made Ya”). Others are simply bizarre, particularly “Caravan Petrol,” in which Turturro slaps a knotted kerchief on his head and busts dance moves on the beach with buddy Max Masella. Top prize, however, goes to “Tammurriata Nera,” an anti-war song from the 1940s inexplicably mashed up with Casella’s version of Al Dexter’s “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” (Actually, it’s more train wreck than mash-up.) Exactly what’s being revealed about Neapolitan music—or really, about anything—at that moment is open to debate, and Turturro provides few signposts to guide viewers through the maze. As a mix-tape, Passione opens up many possibilities for more guided listening, but as a film, it’s at times maddeningly incomplete.