Thrice now, John Turturro has thrown dignity to the wind and cashed doubtless sizable checks from the Transformers franchise. But none of his Michael Bay performances are as uncomfortable as his interstitial appearances as host in Passione, his documentary valentine to the music and culture of Naples. Turturro mostly lets the music and the denizens speak for themselves, but periodically he makes his presence known as our self-consciously corny guide. “Follow me,” he purrs, with a wag to the camera, “as we trail the songs like birds flying over houses and neighborhoods.”
What he says isn’t always torn from romance novels; he usually, excitedly, offers explanation, contextualization and straightened records. He points out that the music that tourists often merely think of as a generic kind of other-lovely are “drenched in contradiction and irony”—passionate love songs in which, say, the narrator professes his undying amore, but would also settle for a sibling. Mostly he shuts up, segueing from one song to the next, and hanging all-too-briefly with the nation’s performers and keepers of the cultural flame. And while he elucidates on the vast city’s checkered past of calamity and invasions, which have resulted in a resilient populace with several other cultures running through their blood, that’s apparent from the music, which ranges from haunting Italian guitar ballads to a bit of reggae fusion.
The music is uniformly arresting and, thanks to subtitling, fascinating (“I am the mirror you never want to see,” croons a skeezy prostitute), and it’s almost enough to excuse the oft-shoddy presentation. The songs themselves are done up like cheesy music videos, the kind you’d expect to spot on a Neapolitan MTV channel, although no station would ever air videos this listlessly directed. (Turturro’s sole stylistic move is a slow zoom.) Music and directing don’t go well together for Turturro, despite his glaring affinity for both; his previous directorial outing was Romance and Cigarettes, a promising, Dennis Potter-style idea made shrill and unwatchable. He would have done well to simply copy Carlos Saura, whose Fados, on the music of Portugal, took the same general idea and had the smarts to avoid the schmaltz. Passione works best when you close your eyes and simply listen.