Naples ‘44 ends up feeling like an audiobook with a slideshow attached, unable to expand on its core premise in anything close to a satisfying fashion.
A film does not need sound to validate its existence, a fact demonstrated by the voluminous glories of the silent era and the ample experimental and non-narrative work created thereafter.
Yet in all but the most extreme examples, it does require images. This necessity becomes a bit trickier in the world of nonfiction, where compelling material doesn’t always have an obvious pictorial analogue. In the best cases, this inherent disparity results in an ingenious pairing of informational content with complementary visual matter; in the worst it results in films that seem to inhabit the cinematic form for expediency alone, with little actual justification for their use of the medium.
A historical chronicle crossed with a personal wartime reminiscence, Naples ‘44 lands somewhere between these two extremes. Inquisitive and intellectual, it’s ultimately hampered by its subject matter, which is compelling, but lacks the inherent visual foundation and narrative through-line needed to support its ambitious approach. At least that’s the case with how it’s presented here. Director Francesco Patierno’s biggest error is a structural one, choosing to deliver the story in bare narrated form, with contrapuntal and tangential images padding out the spoken words. Presenting British travel writer Norman Lewis’s World War II memoir of a sojourn in the Southern Italian city, Patierno attempts to blend in archival footage and other related material as a counterpoint to the book’s text, but the imagery never rises beyond purely illustrative, assuring that the film adds little to its impressive source material.
What results is a slow parade of gravid intonation from narrator Benedict Cumberbatch, which unspools over a variety of supplementary images, B-roll that struggles to draw coherent connections to the spoken portion. These bits range from movie clips – culled from post-war neo-realist cinema to late Fellini and Catch 22 -, to newsreel footage and padding shots of the city. Worst are wordless interstitial segments that capture a fictional version of Lewis on a return visit to the city in the ‘70s, wandering around like a lonely ghost. He’s accompanied by a camera hovering gently behind him, shot in the way dreams often are, and this dull, impressionistic flight of fancy confirms the film’s inherent lack of imagination and overall shapelessness.
Again, this is a shame, considering how interesting and relevant Lewis’ text remains. Serving as a linguistic attaché, he’s assigned to the city in an effort to help ease the handover from Axis to Allied control. That gradual process, a rough transition playing out in the liminal space between two occupying regimes, is defined by small moments of connection and discovery, a welcome respite from epochal stories of the weight and carnage of the war. But without an adequate visual program, Naples ‘44 ends up feeling like an audiobook with a slideshow attached, unable to expand on its core premise in anything close to a satisfying fashion.