This film, a collage of memory and story, nightmare and fact, holds high the war-shattered image of Naples. It takes us amongst the ruins to show us desperate lives caught up in battle and destruction.
We are not asked to pity or excuse … only to understand, and to witness the consequences of a year of war in a city targeted for its strategic importance.
Naples ’44, takes its name from the book with the same title based on the wartime diaries of English intelligence officer, Norman Lewis, who was sent into the city in 1943. He stayed for just over a year. It is his words, voiced in English by the actor Benedict Cumberbatch, that provide the steady commentary to the mix of footage that has been fused into this documentary film.
The director is Francesco Patierno who was born in Naples in 1964. His vision scatters more recent film clips amongst the old, each chosen to flash fresh light on the original content.
The majority of the film is in black and white. Flickering reels follow the tide of war as it crashes over the city – bombs, tanks, soldiers, disease, hunger, and prostitution roll through the ruins. Then Vesuvius erupts, majestic and awful, driving the people of Naples back to their saints.
We see all this in fragile footage. Unvarnished and undeniable it reveals the damage.
The rare bursts of colour include a number of silent cameos of an actor playing the prime witness, Norman Lewis, as he returns many decades later to Naples. These snippets snatch the memory forward. Most are gentle, but one that is unsettling is the nightmarish, abstract depiction of the scene where blind girls beg for food from indifferent diners – a moment that Norman Lewis remembers as a conversion, one that overwhelmed him with pessimism. The abrupt change in style makes us pause, before we’re plunged back amongst the well-fed Allied soldiers and starving locals in Naples and its outskirts.
The film, both horrifying and intriguing, is a gripping mix of live action, exploitation and survival – it is memory, visual and emotional, crafted together to show us a city blown into pieces … and then picked over.
I would recommend Naples ’44 to anyone, but particularly to those who know the city or have read Norman Lewis’ book.
The film, one hour and twenty minutes in length, is available to watch on BBC iPlayer until the last week of December 2017
The book Naples ’44 is published by Eland Publishing (£10.99) ISBN 978 0 907871 72 9
This clip with thanks to MovieTrainer.com gives a good flavour of the film.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2017