Naples '44, a British look at the ruins of war
by Camillo De Marco
- Francesco Patierno brings us a documentary based on the book by great memorialist Norman Lewis, with Benedict Cumberbatch as narrator
On 9 September 1943, British security services official, Norman Lewis, together with the Fifth Army, landed in Salerno and, after days of bitter fighting, arrived in a Naples which had been liberated mere hours beforehand. He found a city in ruins, laid out flat by the Nazi occupation, without running water, electricity or food. In the months he stayed there, the official entered an unimaginable, terrible and fascinating world, which he described in detail in his travel diaries. Years later, those diaries became a book, Naples '44, published in 1978, a real masterpiece, described as one of the ten books to keep on the Second World War and, as Graham Greene wrote, "a unique experience for the reader just as it must have been a unique experience for the author". Italian filmmaker Francesco Patierno (People Who Are Well) has now made a documentary with the same title, thanks to the efforts of producers Davide Azzolini and Francesca Barra, who also managed to secure British star Benedict Cumberbatch as narrator between his performances of Hamlet in London and on the set of Doctor Strange.
In 2012 Patierno worked on La guerra dei vulcani, a documentary on the love triangle between Rossellini, Magnani and Bergman by mixing archive material with scenes from the most famous films by the master of neorealism. Naples '44 [+see also:
interview: Francesco Patierno
film profile], which was presented in the Official Selection of the 11th Rome Film Fest, is instead a meticulous collage of archive footage from the Second World War, films on liberated Naples and footage of Naples today, which accompanies the text of an author who would go on to become one of the greatest memorialists in British literature. Along with the archive footage, documentary sequences and glimpses of rare photos, the director uses material from the archives of the Istituto Luce and from American and British archives.
The film opens on an elderly man from behind as he walks through some woods, where he finds a watch that must have belonged to one of the many allied soldiers to have died during the fighting. The notion is of the emotional return of the author of the book to modern-day Naples, in search of people places and images of Naples as it was in 1944. Norman Lewis had a number of duties, one of which included finding trustworthy informants. This brought him into contact with the beating heart of the people, and his shrewd, alert, detached yet tremendously sympathetic point of view recorded that world in which values were turned upside down. In a city exhausted by famine and illness, decimated by bombs, only a desperate faith in miracles and survival instincts remained intact. The images we see, shown in continuous flashbacks between places of the past and the present, melt together between scenes of bombings, migration, tears, the black market and people getting by, with moments of bitter laughter, brought to us above all by the sequences from films such as Il re di Poggioreale by Duilio Coletti and Comma 22 by Mike Nichols, based on the book by Joseph Heller. In his account, Lewis (and therefore the images in the film) doesn’t hold back with the moments that changed him, like when he saw a father talking to his young son, who was trapped in the ruins left by bombs – “don’t die!” – or the passing of a group of children blinded and starved by war through a group of diners in a restaurant. Britality and flashes of humanity that correspond perfectly to the images of contemporary wars, which TV has made commonplace.
(Translated from Italian)