NAPLES ’44 | FILM REVIEW

Written by Gregory Mann

In 1943, Norman Lewis (Benedict Cumberbatch), a young British officer, entered a war-torn Naples with ‘The American Fifth Army.’Lewis began writing in his notepad everything that happened to him during his one-year stay observing the complex social cauldron of a city that contrived every day the most incredible ways of fighting to survive. These notes turned into Naples ’44. This film adaptation imagines Lewis returning to the city that charmed and seduced him many years later. This visionary reminiscence is made up of flashbacks between the places of the present, that Lewis revisits, and the stories of the past. We see in eighty minutes a thrilling and unpredictable parade of absolutely unforgettable stories and characters; women in feather hats milking cows in the rubble, statues of saints carried by hysterical crowds attempting to stop Vesuvius from erupting and impoverished professionals surviving by impersonating aristocratic uncles from Rome at funerals and weddings. But Naples ’44 is also a powerful condemnation of the horrors of war, whether just or unjust.

The film was invited to the official selection of The Rome Film Festival. In 2017, it won the Nastro d’Argento Award for Best Documentary and was nominated for a David Di Donatello Award. Naples ’44 is the story of an emotional journey bordering on a love affair; one between a person who finds himself almost accidentally in an unknown faraway place and a city torn and traumatised by war. The film describes how Norman Lewis charm and inquisitiveness for something new gradually turn into ever stronger feelings of empathy towards the population of the city. It describes Lewis efforts to try and improve ‘The Neapolitans’ condition and finally the pain and frustration felt after the sudden news of his imminent departure. The voice of Norman Lewis becomes our personal guide inside the hidden heart of Naples. Through the stories and fortunes of the people Lewis meets, by the end of this intimate nostalgic journey we can fully share with him a deep feeling for the city.

Naples in 1944 in a film; the debris, the war, Totò and Mastroianni. It awakens our consciences, numbed by the daily flood of war images. Among the most applauded films, Francesco Patierno’s “Naples’ 44”, an unusual but powerful docufilm based on the autobiographical story by Norman Lewis. Many have tried bringing the book to the big screen, but it’s difficult to translate into a screenplay the many anecdotes the young English officer Lewis collected in his notebooks. In Naples ’44 , Norman Lewis reveals himself on screen too as a memoirist full of talent and humanity. The author’s journey is also one into the history of our country, to try and understand its contradictions, its virtues as well as it’s meanness. “Naples’44″ gives us something we didn’t even know existed: the war in Italy as we’ve never seen it before. Emotions flow vividly in a composition that, with the narrator’s impartial gaze, and one full of pietas, falling on the inflicted and accepted miseries of the Neapolitans, talks to us about all wars, under any banner. This film experiences the immense suffering of the people of Naples, who undoubtedly had to endure some of the most atrocious wounds of the war. The film touches by this authentic tale of formation that, among other things, coincides with the pillars of research and reflections on a period beyond the stereotypes. The result is a remarkable film trovato, a treasure unearthed from beneath the stones of the never-ending city and brought back to vivacious, passionate life.

From a certain point of view Naples ’44 is a radiantly topical film. The segment of a world that in “Naples’44” comes back out in to the light and remerges with an overbearing modernity, turning the silent advance of Vesuvius’s lava of time into a powerful metaphor uniting eras and covering everything: wrong and right, alibis and facts, promises and hopes. And, above all, illusions. It wasn’t for the time-chiseled patina on the footage dug out from archives around the world, for the powerful images of Vesuvius erupting or for the Caravaggesque faces of the faithful praying before the blood of Saint Januarius, there really wouldn’t be much difference between the Naples of the time and cities martyred by the conflicts of today, like Aleppo, like Mosu. Francesco Patierno’s film-making work is truly complementary to and as worthy as Norman Lewis’s work of literature. Wounded, devastated, bombed and raped, in the end a whole city seems to want to come out of the nightmare and shout out against war. Against all wars. Naples ’44 captures the sense of a humanity that refuses to give up to the horrors of war, and in so doing shows all its modernity. Blood and tears, laughter and oddities, Naples ’44 is a journey back in time that describes tactfully and dramatically the routine of war. The film describes real events, which reach out straight to our hearts. The film helps us understand how the mechanisms of war always remain the same.

Occupied by the Germans, in 1943 a popular uprising occurred and by the following year the city was finally liberated by American forces. During these years the people of the city fought against their oppressors with great courage, and suffered heavy losses. Francesco Patierno’s film shows men, women and children desperately hungry, many of them homeless, and exhausted by the destruction of war. But it’s also clear that they’re not defeated, that their spirit is very much alive, and fiercely committed to resistance and survival. Lewis’s diary is empathic, grateful and even enamoured with Naples and the Neapolitans, and Francesco Patierno rereads it in the most original of ways. These days, it’s no big surprise if the best images of Italian cinema come from the past. In Naples ’44 , though he takes as a starting point the simple illustration of Norman Lewis’s text,  Patierno, with a mix of well-known or previously unseen archive footage and clips from dramatic films or comedies,  manages to compose a tableau of the city that transfigures the literary text, in this way affirming the legitimacy and originality of his film. Naples ‘44 is a bold project uniting literature and the cinema. Patierno confirms himself as an auteur capable of taking uncommon paths in the map of Italian cinema. And he leaves us with a rich, stratified and solid film that leaves room for thought; something so important in a contemporary scenario like ours, inclined to easy oblivion and short memory close-up.

Naples ’44 is a film that uses our history to allow us to look at the events of today and the various wars around the world through a magnifying glass. It looks at the past, but with the declared aim of presenting a confrontation with the present. Patierno’s Naples ’44 describes the reality of city capable of inventing life from nothing. He directs a work of memory reconstruction as if he were conducting an orchestra, giving new life, with an effective union of history and visualness, to pages written over seventy years ago. The director’s point of view is never complacent or nostalgic, never picture-postcard or banal, but dense, with an active involvement and a sense of wonder that not even the mayor of Naples De Magistris could match. Authentically a portrait to remember and savour like a frugal but dignified dish of times gone by. An intense film, with great care for every single detail, both in terms of the literary adaptation process and of the great work of research gone into retrieving the archive footage. A work that invites us to reflect on the meaning of the word freedom and it’s price.

Naples ’44 is an acute and poetic documentary, moving towards the end and enlightened in the choice of words and images, which succeed in retracing a most painful historical period in a splendid and awe-inspiring. Third of the Italian titles included in the official selection, Naples ’44 surprisingly comes across as the one that best manages to come into contact with the ceaseless sense of crisis that our times emanate, successfully convincing us deep down, with no reserve. With film footage from the period, brilliantly intercut with movie stock and contemporary glimpses of the city, Naples ’44 is a harrowing portrait of a defiant population which after suffering great losses, finally drove out it’s Nazi occupiers, and did survive. The film arouses in the spectator emotions with delayed action, just like the bombs the Germans had scattered round the city, programmed to explode after their escape, and it forces us to think about the collective repression in our minds of that period. A work well worth seeing over and over to be able to fully appreciate the game of cross-references between fiction and reality. A sort of pulsating hyper-text that confronts itself with literature and the cinema. Naples ’44 is a historic memoir and living memory.

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