JOHN TURTURRO is in his native New York City on a Friday morning awaiting his participation in rehearsals for the Broadway play “Relatively Speaking”, his directorial debut on stage, which begins next month. Until then he’s on the telephone talking about his latest directorial effort, a documentary feature film entitled “Passione”, about the 800-year musical history of Naples, an Italian city which is a country unto itself in Mr. Turturro’s film.
Sophia Loren once said that she wasn’t Italian but Neapolitan, and that there was a difference. After watching “Passione”, many who haven’t been to Naples, or Napoli, as it’s locally known, will agree that a difference exists.
Mr. Turturro, 54, said he spent two years researching and studying the musical history of Naples. “This is a labor of love, a passion project. I didn’t do this film to make a career move with all the acting work I’ve done, but because I love the people and this history.”
Of the artists in “Passione” and in general in Naples, Mr. Turturro observes that “there’s not a huge level of narcissism in them. They just do what they love, and do it very well. They’re totally professional. It really surprised me that with all of their scheduling differences they were able to be masters of improvisation. I thought that was going to be a greater challenge. There was so much that needed to be done,” Mr. Turturro explains about “Passione”, one of the year’s best films.
The Brooklyn-born actor-director is well known for his roles in nine of Spike Lee’s films, including most notably “Do The Right Thing”. He’s a fixture in several Coen Brothers films such as “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, “Barton Fink” and “The Big Lebowski”. Mr. Turturro is a staple of the “Transformers” series and was especially memorable in Tony Bill’s 1987 drama “Five Corners”, the film Mr. Lee took keen note of, leading him to cast Mr. Turturro as Pino the racist in “Right Thing”.
The Neapolitan artists shown in Mr. Turturro’s “Passione” tour the world and Naples has influenced artists the world over, with an abundance of music. “Passione” is the best thing that Mr. Turturro has directed.
For Mr. Turturro “Passione” is intended as “an introduction into that world” of music, color and history.
“The people of Napoli are such resilient people, with all they’ve been through. A lot has happened to them in history, and they’re a mix of so many different backgrounds and origins. There’s a rich heritage and many traditions.”
“Passione” is a vibrant, colorful look at Neapolitan culture and its musical roots and flavors. Mr. Turturro directs a complex, sexy, moving film enlivened by Naples’ highly talented singers and musicians, arguably the world’s best, yet little-known outside their hometown. “Passione” is now a musical play, thriving on stage in Naples as a huge sensation and soon across all of Europe. “I really would love to bring [the musical] to San Francisco,” the director says.
San Francisco won’t have to wait long for Mr. Turturro’s film “Passione”, which opens on Friday at the San Francisco Film Society New People Cinema. (The film played in Los Angeles and New York City earlier this year, and will open next month in Detroit and Evanston, Illinois among other U.S. cities.)
“Passione”, made on what Mr. Turturro characterized as a “very limited budget”, is a celebration of love, hope and despair but its biggest character is irony. There are a contradiction of themes and examination of opposites through song that are especially resonant and striking.
At one point in this early morning telephone conversation Mr. Turturro notes, “you have a great eye,” as a poetic but wholly accidental moment in his new film is pointed out to him. It involves a rendition of “Indifferentemente”, sung by Misia. A small white feather falls into view from the left side of the screen at precisely an ironic point in the song. It’s an amazing occurrence that couldn’t be scripted by Chayefsky, Goldman or Schulburg. “You’re the first person to mention it!” Mr. Turturro declares, with eureka-sounding joy in his voice.
The magical instance in question happened in the first take, which the director cited was neither the best take nor the strongest indicator of Misia’s talents. It was effect that Mr. Turturro was looking for, and when he found it, there was no going back.
“Passione” is full of energy, joy, longing and pageantry. The film mixes documentary footage of events from world history, including those involving Naples, which in its time has been invaded by numerous countries including Spain. Mr. Turturro co-wrote the screenplay, and he gets to step in front of the camera not only as the narrator but also as an eager participant in the film’s festivities.
“I really love the city,” Mr. Turturro said of Naples, a city more rich in soul and warmth than wealth. “The music and the peoples’ ability to thrive is in their DNA over there.”
Shot in 21 days spread out in 2010, “Passione” has 23 musical numbers, more than half of which are live. Mr. Turturro has directed three other films including the 2005 film “Romance And Cigarettes”, which he said spurred him in some respects to make “Passione”, has had music on his mind for some time. “There was a lot of good music in my (last) film and I knew I wanted to explore music on a greater scale in the next film I directed.”
Sergio Bruni, a Naples music legend, and many other Naples-based artists are glimpsed in “Passione”, with generations of celebrated artists performing amidst vivid landscapes. Mr. Bruni, one of the old guard, was someone whose talents grew on the director. “I didn’t think much of him at first,” Mr. Turturro recalls, “but while I did this film and listened to him more I had a greater respect and appreciation for him. He’s timeless. Now I understand why people love him so much.”
“Passione” opens in San Francisco on Friday at the San Francisco Film Society New People Cinema for a two-week run. Mr. Turturro is expected to appear in person at an October 3 screening in San Francisco.
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For more of Omar’s film stories, movie reviews and interviews visit his Popcorn Reel website and watch his unscripted film reviews on YouTube. Follow him on Twitter.
For a list of Omar’s knotmove.com stories and film reviews, click here. He is a contributing film critic for “Ebert Presents At The Movies” on PBS television and also a far flung correspondent for the preeminent film critic Roger Ebert and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.