Napoli Napoli Napoli is a portrait of the city of Naples, but also and above all it is a lunge into its vital and brutal, passionate and cruel humankind. With the help of ex-prisoner Gaetano Di Vaio, Abel Ferrara carried out a series of interviews with women held in the Pozzuoli female penitentiary. Struck by their statements, run through with bitterness and fatalism, he decided to graft their life stories onto three different narratives, with scripts written by Peppe Lanzetta, Maurizio Braucci and Gaetano Di Vaio. Di Vaio's script works through his personal experience, Braucci constructs a story of growth that involves a blood feud, while Lanzetta composes a strongly accented family drama alternating violence, hope and vendetta.
“What do you think about the mafia? - No comment.”
Documentary is an elastic genre. No rigid set of rules or prescribed legacies like those in horror or sci-fi. No rabid fans waiting to eat up the next installment in a franchise. No one analyzing frame by frame hidden details in the production design. Documentary filmmakers are primarily concerned with telling their story in the best possible way without any regard for rules. Films such as ‘Taxi to the Darkside’ and ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ instantly come to mind as ones that challenged convention. I suppose that’s why it’s my favorite type of film. I don’t care what the subject matter is as long as it’s presented in an engaging manner. I hate sports, yet I sat through all 19 hours of ‘Ken Burns’ Baseball’.
‘Napoli, Napoli, Napoli’ is a 2009 documentary from director Abel Ferrara that attempts to explore the consequences of the mafia’s ever tightening grasp on Naples, Italy. It’s a patchwork film beating us over the head constantly with how destitute life has become in the beautiful city of Naples. Between archival footage, present day interviews, and 3 fictional subplots Ferrara takes whatever path he chooses to tell the story. I admire the effort but it achieves an unproductive result.
The film opens on a prison with men sleeping in bunk beds. A busy street below. Images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. A family going about their morning routine. An anxious man waits with his phone on a street corner. Ferrara speaks incoherently with some people on the street outside his hotel. It’s clear already that our fictional subplots are more cinematic looking than the “documentary” footage shot with a handheld DV camera. Ferrara’s film presents an unflinching view of contemporary life in Naples through the lives of its inmates and those citizens hoping to cultivate social change in a city crumbling under mafia control and prevalent drug use. Shuffling between reality and fiction, Ferrara utilizes handheld camera work with shot-on-video image quality. During the inmate interviews picture clarity improves, but it’s apparent Ferrara isn’t concerned with clarity but rather color and movement.
With a bright washed out setting Ferrara interviews inmates from the women’s prison in Naples. Each are in for drug dealing or robbery. Their stories are heartbreaking to say the least. What stood out to me was the sheer amount of poverty and lack of government support in the city. The high unemployment rate produces a populace that barely finishes elementary school before they’re selling cigarettes on the street. Ferrara only provides us with a limited view of the city and its people. I wouldn’t look at this film as a complete portrait but rather a cautionary tale wrapped in an edgy crust. The people are all shown as products of a bad decision fueled by a bleak existence in a cruel city. Said one young inmate “If I didn’t live there I wouldn't have gotten involved in drugs.” In a bit of self-serving attention, Ferrara often turns the camera on himself while a translator relays a message. He’s trying so hard to make artistic choices but they are executed poorly with their intended value never attained. His attempts are sloppy like a Z-grade Werner Herzog wannabe.
Throughout the film are 3 fictional subplots used to propel the film’s message. Using a men’s prison, a mafia hit, and a young prostitute’s brutal family dynamic Ferrara beats the audience over the head with subtlety. The inclusion of the fictional storylines was a nice touch to provide a heightened example of the stories told through the interviews, but it was completely unnecessary. It slowed the film’s momentum, too. Maybe take those stories and create a separate film? I’d rather Ferrara spend more time showing us the reality than this. It’s kind of a chaotic mess, but maybe a brilliant mess. As with Ferrara’s films his use of religious imagery permeates the frame from the crosses on the inmates jewelry to the virgin mary haloed in fluorescent lights outside a dirty bodega. Fans of Ferrara may dig this bleak piece of raw filmmaking, but others will leave with a bitter taste asking, “Is that it?”
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
‘Napoli, Napoli, Napoli’ arrives on region A Blu-ray thanks to RaroVideo and Kino Lorber. The film is pressed onto a BD25 disc and housed in a standard keepcase with a booklet featuring essays on the film. The disc opens to the RaroVideo logo before settling onto the Main Menu. When you hear Dean Martin crooning over your speakers you’ve made it.
Presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 ‘Napoli, Napoli, Napoli’ is a mixed bag of visual quality. Even though we’re presented with an HD transfer the film never shows it. Perhaps it was to much artistic tinkering that kept the film from executing a visual clarity one would expect from an HD transfer. Cinematic shots of beautiful streets look hazy and low-res. Constant static on the image makes most of the film look like a grungy 1990s music video.
‘Napoli, Napoli, Napoli’ is supplied with a utilitarian DTS-HD MA 2.0 sound mix. With most of the film shot handheld there isn’t much growth in the sound beyond scoring elements heightening the atmosphere. Even the more cinematic fictional subplots are recorded sparingly. In Italian with English subtitles.
Booklet - 15 pages of essays on the film from RaroVideo.
Backstage (HD) (33:53) A behind the scenes featurette that provides a compelling look at Ferrara’s improvised directing style. On set footage was shot with DV cameras that provide a glimpse into scenes that didn’t make the final cut.
Trailer (HD) (2:17)
My initial excitement over ‘Napoli, Napoli, Napoli’ came from Ferrara’s wild card filmography. As such an inconsistent filmmaker I was on the edge of my seat wondering where the director of ‘Ms. 45’ would take us. Feeling more arthouse than grindhouse this film will intrigue and entertain the right audience but confuse others. From the bleak stories of inmates struggling to survive in a careless city to an intensely savage depiction of life in the streets, ‘Napoli, Napoli, Napoli’ is just as enigmatic as its director. RaroVideo’s first contemporary release is a bold choice and one that will please arthouse audiences. I can’t recommend this film as a documentary, but as a curiosity it’s an interesting watch.