John Turturro's PASSIONE for Naples

Filmmaker John Turturro on the set of PASSIONE.
Photo credit: Iole Capasso / Squeezed Heart Productions.

John Turturro’s latest film PASSIONE opens on Wednesday June 22nd at the Film Forum in New York.  The film, his fourth as a director (MAC, ILLUMINATA, ROMANCE AND CIGARETTES), is a “musical adventure” through the beautiful, mysterious, and often misunderstood city of Naples.  With 23 songs performed by Napoli’s contemporary musical artists, Turturro and cinematographer Marco Pontevecchio create a visual representation of the history, emotion, and perseverance captured in the city’s music.  Sundance Channel met with Turturro to discuss the film, his musical influences, and his love for the city of Naples.

What is PASSIONE and how did you become involved with the film?

It’s a musical adventure through Napoli.  And you see various aspects of Napoli through songs that we chose, through the thousands of songs to choose from, and there are many great artists and songs that are not represented.  So we were trying to find something that would have a balance like when you write a symphony.  You have something legato, something very strong, something that builds.  We wanted to have a balance of the old and the new.

(Producers) Carlo Macchitella and Alessandra Acciai invited me to make a BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB from Napoli.  I realized it’s not a Communist country, it’s not about a band reuniting, and also because of the longevity of (Naples’) music history it would be interesting to maybe explore various aspects of it because it’s such a complex city.  So we didn’t know if it would be a documentary…they wanted different singers…they wanted some old footage.  They had made some documentaries for (Italian television company) RAI, five hour versions, and Federico Vacalebre is a musicologist and co-author.  He’s a journalist, he introduced me to a lot of music and different arrangements of songs I was interested in, and I thought it would be great to have living artists connected to some of the artists of the past.

How has music influenced your life and when did you first become aware of Italian music?

I grew up in a house full of music and Italian music was part of that.  Whether it was opera, Dean Martin – he sang some Italian songs, obviously Louis Prima.  There was Italian music, and there was popular music, sometimes Italian singers…there was Jazz, rhythm and blues, soul music, which I grew up on a lot.  My brother was more into heavy rock and roll than me.  It was a house full of music.

My mother sang with her brothers, she sang professionally for a little bit, and then she didn’t really want to live that life.  She would sing in the choir at church.  She had a wonderful voice and she was from a musical family.  My father’s family all loved music, but they weren’t as musical as my mother’s family.  My older brother plays the sax and the guitar.  I play the drums with my brother Nicholas, he’s a drummer.  He actually sings a little bit, Nicholas.  He kind of gave it up, but he has a nice voice.  But I’m a music lover.  I like all kind of music, I really do.  I loved THE BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB.  And in (Turturro’s film) ROMANCE AND CIGARETTES you see it’s very eclectic, the choices that I made.  Not that they were all my favorite songs, but actually a couple of the songs are Italian songs.  Connie Francis sings “Do You Love Me Like You Kiss Me,” which is a Neapolitan song.  And the original title song of the movie “Man Without Love” Englebert Humperdink sings, it’s “Quando Mi Amoro.”  So that movie is indicative of how I grew up, and that film was released with good distribution, it did very well in Italy, and that’s why I was asked to do this film (PASSIONE).

One of the first lines in the film is, “There are places you go to and once is enough.  And then you have Napoli.”  For somebody who hasn’t been there yet, or somebody who’s been there a hundred times, describe that sentiment.

I think (singer) Misia described it best when we interviewed her.  She did a great interview.  She says Napoli is a place she was drawn to.  She’s from Portugal and she spent a lot of time (in Napoli).  But it’s like a witch, it’s bewitching.  It has all of these contradictions: it’s dangerous and it’s beautiful, it’s brutal and it’s poetic.  There’s life, these vibrant people, but there’s this fatalistic atmosphere sometimes.  It’s a very mysterious place: they’ve had invasions, earthquakes, they’re on a volcano.  It’s one of those places that pulsates with energy, especially in the sections where the people are in the streets together, the poorer sections.  The wealthier sections are on top of the hill.  But it’s a place that’s mythical, you know what I mean?  It’s one of the stops of Odysseus, with the sirens.  Virgil is buried there.  There were so many great poets who went to the Amalfi coast.  So it’s this kind of strange place, but the people are very theatrical and very musical.  It’s a Classical music center, it has a big opera house.  And classical music and popular music have mingled.

Pietra Montecorvino performing the song, ‘Nun Te Scurda’ (Don’t You Forget) in John Turturro’s PASSIONE.
Photo credit: Iole Capasso / Squeezed Heart Productions.

How much of contemporary Neapolitan music is rooted in the past?

A lot of it.  That song “Vesuvius” is a song from the last 20 years, but it’s got a connection – it’s almost like an ancient folk song.  “Tammurriata Nere” was written in the 1940’s, but we did a new version of it.  But that’s based on the old folk songs, at least “Tammurriata” is, which you play with a tambourine and maybe a drum.  And it’s to exorcise all of these bad things that have happened.  Guys like Coronado Corasoni (were) influenced by American music, too, and put it into a Neapolitan flavor.  It’s a melting pot, so there’s a lot of influences from the past and from people who have come (to Naples).

Is the North African influence the more recent influence in Neapolitan music?

It was always there because Sicily and Tunisia are very close.  There are more immigrants (from North Africa), but they’ve always had them.   But if you listed to Sicilian music you hear the Arabic (snaps his fingers) 1-2-3.  Or even some Judaic influences because there was a big Jewish community there, too.  But in Naples, it’s been there and now there’s more of it.  Or maybe they’re putting a spotlight on what was there a long time ago, and they’re saying “This has always been here, let’s take that out of the ground.”  So I do think you can feel it.

What made you choose the 23 songs in the film and those artists?

I like the group Spakka Neapolis, I love that song “Carmela,” which was a poem which Salvatore Palomba, who is interviewed, wrote.  And Sergio Bruni does a beautiful version of it.  And now I’ve become a really big Sergio Bruni fan.  I didn’t get it at first.  When you have the right songs, because they’re slow, it’s almost like listening to a cantor.  But I love that song.  And the lyrics, which aren’t translated because it’s the opening song that Mina sings, it’s about Naples as a woman.  “Carmela” represents the city of Naples.  “Tammurriata,” I always knew I wanted to build something around that because I thought it was fascinating.  And then with James Senese we decided on PASSIONE, which I think is an amazing song.  And I found out from Francis Ford Coppola that it was Marlon Brando’s favorite song.  The “Comme Facette Mammeta” song…was written in 1906, that was a sex song.  It was a racy song.  There are plenty of songs that I didn’t get it.  But I tried to find a balance between the ballads and the songs that had rhythm and something that was maybe a little political.  I was trying to find the balance to keep everybody’s interest.  Because I figured every song would show you something. When I chose “Catari” …that’s a Neapolitan scene that Caravaggio painted called “The Seven Acts of Mercy.”

M’Barka Ben Taleb performing the song, ‘Nun Te Scurda’ (Don’t You Forget) in John Turturro’s PASSIONE.
Photo credit: Iole Capasso / Squeezed Heart Productions.

Saxophone player James Senese’s scene is very powerful when he talks about how the father he never met (a former GI) would send him records from America, which  had a huge influence on him as a musician.  Since World War II how much of an American influence has made it into Neapolitan music?

Tremendous.  They really invaded.  People who I knew that lived through the war, they know Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Cole Porter.  They know all of those songs.  They know American movies that were dubbed, cowboy movies.  Italy embraced a lot of things that were American.  There was a fight for Italy because we were worried it would be a Russian satellite country.  But certainly our music and our films are very popular there.

Where does that Neapolitan sense of humor come from?

I think it comes out of survival because they’re really fatalistic about certain things.  “We’ll just make the best of it.”  Some of them don’t think about the future, some do.  Let’s face it, in Italy you couldn’t get divorced.  I read an article in the New Yorker that 95% of the men don’t know how to run a washing machine.  Women now have more opportunities and they’re catching up.  It’s funny, when I go to Italy and I see guys, they get away with things that you couldn’t get away with here because there’s a softness to it.  Look, (Silvio) Berlusconi’s taken it to a whole new level…  The dichotomy of it I kind of wanted to play with.

Massimo Ranieri performing ‘Malafemmena’ in John Turturro’s PASSIONE.
Photo credit: Iole Capasso / Squeezed Heart Productions.

I grew up and my mom had a big influence on me.  I have to say I like working with women, I like being around women, and I wanted to represent the women in the movie, all different faces of it.  And if you see it, I don’t have all twenty year old girls, and I think that’s great.  If someone sings a love song and they’re 20 years old, they don’t really know what they’re talking about.  What do they know?  What do they have, two experiences?  They have nothing that they can tell me unless they’re some kind of exceptional genius.  But it’s nice when somebody’s 40 and they’re singing a song and they know what they’re talking about.

Marco Pontecorvo’s cinematography brings out the dichotomy of Naples: beautiful from above, mysterious from the street.  How did you connect the cinematography to the music?

We just worked really well together and we are good friends, we have a long relationship.  I had scouted, he liked some things, and when he didn’t he would say something.  For example, we were going to rehearse Anna DiMaggio in a studio, and Marco said to me “This is not good.”  We knew we probably weren’t going to do it live, so we just scouted after work.  And I walked around and found this big square that I loved.  And I asked our location manager “Can you get it for us tomorrow morning?”  It was night, and she said, “I’ll try.”  And she did.

Filmmaker John Turturro on the set of PASSIONE.
Photo credit: Iole Capasso / Squeezed Heart Productions.

I try to create a fun atmosphere.  Marco was trained by Pasqualino DeSantis who did a lot of movies with Rosi, and Visconti, and he also was Gianni Di Venanzno’s operator on 8 ½ and LA DOLCE VITA.  He was trained by those guys.  And we’re really good friends.  And we shot this movie, 23 numbers, plus interviews, plus other songs we cut, two other songs, in 21 days.  It’s really like a little miracle.  A movie like NINE had fifty million dollars.  The only problem was they didn’t have any really good songs.

Italy is known for cars, fashion, cuisine, and cinema.  Why hasn’t the popular music made it here?

It’s very interesting because Neapolitan music has traveled all over the world when people played music.  You would buy sheets of music right before records.  You would play.  There was a store in little Italy.  Then records and radio came out which the people could listen to.  First of all, people could play it.  So Neapolitan music has traveled along with classical music and other Italian music.  In Japan, people sing Neapolitan songs, they sing it in Israel.  I guess then later on, when children (of immigrants) were not fluent (in Italian), everything gets translated more.

A lot of people didn’t really hold on to it, and it’s a shame in a way.  So my intention was to do something like this that could to appeal to Italians, Italian-Americans, the Latin community, or anybody else who likes music.  Music is music.  I love music and I always don’t understand the words and I figure it out later.

Some of the performers in PASSIONE will be touring?

Yes, there’s going to be a concert.  The president of the country, Napolitano, he’s a big fan of (PASSIONE).   We made it for a million dollars, it was this small budget and it’s played in the movie theaters all over Italy, but I think now the CD, it’s been on the compilation charts in the top ten, we were even number one.  I think now you can get the DVD and the CD there.  We’ve won some critics awards, an award from the region of Genoa, because people feel like we’re exporting something of value.

Half of them, Petra, Lesia, Embarca, Senese, Raiz and Spakka Napolis they’re the ones that are going to do the concert in Genoa, Rome and Naples.

What do you feel are some of the greatest cultural contributions of Naples besides music and art?

Literature.  There are a lot of great writers.  They had their own film industry.  The arts, that’s a vibrant place.  People will tell you to this day the best actors come from Naples.

I think to understand the culture there is a great book that Norman Lewis wrote called “Naples ‘44.”  And he is able because he was English…he could see the dichotomy: people were really superstitious and they could be completely educated at the same time.  So there’s something about it that they’ve kept this ancient approach to things.  At the same time they’re really oppressed by crime, and now they just voted and they’re euphoric that they have a mayor who’s not going to be from Berlusconi or the Comorra or that sort of thing.  And they’ve had a big garbage problem which has been terrible.  It wasn’t when they were shooting, it was after, but on and off they’ve had it.  So it’s a tough city.

But I really like the people a lot.  I can’t tell you how much I like the people.  They’re very particular.  And I’m not really from there.  I’m from near there.  I don’t’ know what it is.  One woman, we were trying to get a shot, you know the opening shot through the sheets and the volcano.   And I said we just had to get it and my location manager, she’s great, she’s from Naples.  They’re masters at (snapping fingers).  People somewhere else, I worked in Torino, and Torino’s great, they’re organized.  But if something goes wrong they don’t have the flexibility.  In Naples, everything goes wrong all of the time.  (My location manager) found it, 12th floor, went to an apartment.  We said, we’ll pay you to come in and she said “No, you don’t have to pay me.”  She said, “What do you want to drink?  You want some prosciutto?”  We said, listen we’ll pay you!  And she said no, you can come in!

Plenty of the people on the crew are the girls in the movie.  In “Nun Te Scurdar” our still photographer, our location manager, Raiz’s sister, the girl who is sitting in (the scene for the song) “Maruzzella.”  The couple that are supposedly having sex, that’s my casting agent and my cinematographer.  All these guys on the crew are making fun of him, “Marco you’re doing it all wrong!”  (laughs)  And she looks great, you’re watching it like “Oh my God, she’s like a star.”  So that was the spirit that we made the film in.  I would make a film there again like that (snaps his fingers).

What is your favorite restaurant in Naples?

One of my favorite restaurants is Taverna del’Arte which is Don Alfonso’s.  He’s the chef in the movie.  There’s a lot of great restaurants, great pizza.  There’s a lot of great food.  You have to be careful they don’t try to kill you.  They try to assassinate you with their meals (laughs).  There are a lot of excellent places.  The coffee is the best in the world, the best coffee in Italy.  Palermo is very good, too.  I’d have to say it’s between those two.  But (in Naples) it’s an art form.

What’s your favorite dish in Naples?

My favorite dish?  I don’t know, there’s a lot of good dishes!  It’s great when I’m in a little hotel there, they give you a hot croissant in the morning, although the coffee isn’t as great.  You have to go to a coffee bar to get the best coffee.  But coffee there is a form of high art.  You’re kind of ruined when you get back from there.  And that’s interesting because it’s poor man’s drink, you know?

When was your first trip to Italy, and how did it shape your appreciation for the country?

I remember very well, when I got cast in THE SICILIAN (directed by Michael Cimino).  I’d never been there until I was in my 20’s.  And I went to Rome for costume fittings and haircuts.  I was jus completely disoriented because I had taken Alitalia…but when Alitalia was very nice.  And it was upstairs (in the plane) and it was first class.  I should have tried to fall asleep, but I didn’t really know what you’re supposed to do.  And of course they kept offering me the caviar, which I had never had, and vodka which I never drink.  I drink wine with my meal and beer.  And they kept giving me this cannelloni stuffed with ricotta and it was like a great restaurant they had.  By the time I got to Rome I was blotto.  I was blotto.  And I had a hangover if I remember.  And I was a little overwhelmed.

And then I spent, I don’t know, four months just to learn how to ride a horse being in the hills.  By the end I was like a horseman riding through the hills of Sicily by myself.  The movie wasn’t very successful but it was a great experience for me.   I studied Italian.  When I got there I spoke really well, but everybody spoke Sicilian.  I was lost.

Now I have to put you on the spot.  As a native New Yorker that has directed a film about Naples, which do you prefer: a New York slice or Neapolitan pizza magherita?

Naples. Definitely.  There’s a couple of great pizzas here, I would say New York is the closest to Naples because of the influence – John’s Pizza, Patsy’s.  You can get really good pizza here.  But there (in Naples) it’s so thin.  I have to go with the place where it originated.  They have pizza festivals.  Pizza contests.  Like every September.  They have these one-offs with elimination.  Oh, it’s serious.