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Naples '44

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Nov 29, 2017
Naples '44

Director Francisco Patierno's adapts Norman Lewis' memoir "Naples '44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy."

Lewis' gorgeously written memoir recalls the British writer's service with the Allies in Italy, where he worked as a military administrator in Naples after the Fascists had been ousted and the Germans driven out. The big-screen treatment, taking the abridged title "Naples '44," falls between the documentary and feature film fomats, in that it features Benedict Cumberbatch narrating a likewise abridged reading of the book, set to a mix of archival footage, clips from movies, and new footage that shows the city as it is today.

The abridgment is well done, highlighting various memorable episodes from Lewis' time in Italy. Cumberbatch's reading is crisp, expressive, and lively -- a good match for Lewis' voluptuous and crystalline prose. Lewis recounts Naples and its residents, many of whom suffered terribly in the aftermath of the city's liberation. Women sold sexual services for tins of food; citizens who had survived the war died when German time bombs went off, destroying buildings; packs of starving children ("hawk-eyed boys" and blind girls) roved; Allied military men romanced the local girls, while the native males grew restless and resentful. In one comic passage Lewis describes being recruited to serve as a translator for one such mismatched pair. Each wanted to know whether the other was married, but they had no language in common; through Lewis, they were about to "lie to their hearts' content," a phrase loaded with all the nuances and paradoxes of the place and the time, and the romances that unfolded there.

Where the film falters is in the causal aspect. The new footage offers a slender through-line, following an older man as he wanders the countryside, the streets, and the rooftops; he seems to be intended as a stand-in for Lewis, a figure now looking back on the times being described. (In an early scene, he reaches into a concealed cubby and finds a vintage watch, wrapped in crumbling cloth.) This device serves the film nicely; this being a memoir, themes of time and memory and nostalgia are front and center.

But the film relies too heavily on a mélange of old movies, several of them -- like Rossellini's 1946 film "Paisan" -- being from the Italian neorealism school. (There are also clips from Mike Nichols' 1970 film "Catch-22" and the 1961 Ernest Borgnine movie "Il re di Poggioreale" -- it's pretty funny to see Borgnine, who is obviously dubbed, pop up here.) The clips are amusing, but often don't mesh with the narration.

What does mesh well, though, is the film's music, by Andrea Guerra; the score creates a dreamlike ambiance that's perfect for the reflective, memorial tone of the prose and Cumberbatch's delivery.

Overall it's a mixed bag, but "Naples '44" leaves you with a curious feeling, as if you'd been there yourself to witness the events you've just heard of. The film does more than show us a clips reel; it sparks the imagination.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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