It's not often a film evokes the spirit of a city the way John Turturro's Passione captures the musical exuberance that pulses through Naples, Italy. We're not talking opera, but a blend of genres that reflects the cultures of the city's invaders as well as its more recent immigrants. Greeks and Spaniards, Arabs and Americans, Turks and French—their songs and melodies have thrived, mixed, and married in a cultural petri dish warmed by the southern Italian sun. And that, in a nutshell, is the whole point of the movie.
Neither a concert film nor a documentary, Passione is Turturro's journey to find the soul of the city that his family once called home and where he has often worked as an actor. Along the way he introduces us to some of the city's top performers: jazz saxophonist James Senese, son of an African-American G.I. father and a Neapolitan mother; Raiz, whose sonic potion of reggae, dub, and traditional Mediterranean melodies epitomizes the cultural melting pot of Naples; and singer M'Barka Ben Taleb, whose work is a ragout of influences from Naples to Tunisia to the East.
The sheer spontaneity of the performances is infectious, as when a crowd of sidewalk onlookers joins in on an impromptu song. And the settings could hardly be more appropriate. Turturro (above, in blue shirt), who directed the film and serves as its narrator, deliberately chose the gritty side of Naples to stage many of the performances in Passione. Music echoes from narrow back alleys, under laundry hanging from clotheslines, in street markets, and on rooftops. The music is at the film's heart, but Turturro's beloved Napoli deserves equal billing.
Passione makes its American debut at New York's Film Forum, June 22 – July 5, 2011, and then moves to Seattle, Portland, Philadelphia and Houston.
Smart Traveler Mark Orwoll is the International Editor of Travel + Leisure.