- By Jim Hicks
Since the end of the eighteenth century, and perhaps long before, visiting Napoli has been a feature item in Western Europe’s bucket list. In a letter from Naples written on March 2, 1787, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe commented, “Of the situation of the city, and of its glories, which have been so often described and commended, not a word from me. ‘Vedi Napoli e poi muori’ is the cry here. ‘See Naples, and die.’” The great German writer added, “That no Neapolitan will allow the merits of his city to be questioned, that their poets should sing in extravagant hyperbole of the blessings of its site, are not matters to quarrel about.”
These days, however, Napoli is perhaps more infamous than famous: whether one thinks of the film (and now TV series) Gomorrah, based on Roberto Saviano’s work of reportage, or the novels of Elena Ferrante, or even the garbage disposal crisis that peaked in 2008, poverty, squalor, and crime seem to have superceded the glories that Goethe came to see. The city’s historic legacy of music, literature, and lifestyle, however, is not so easily displaced. More than twenty years ago, the Italian journalist and music critic Gabriele Ferraris asked me if, in the US, we had anything equivalent to what Napoli represents for Italy. Thinking, perhaps, more of the people than of music or literature, I suggested, maybe Texas? Certainly that state—once an independent republic—does have its characteristic modes of language and dress. And like Napoli, what is taken for its style often substitutes abroad for the country as a whole—aren’t all Americans cowboys? A better answer, I’m thinking now, would have been New Orleans. For the grandeur of the music and literature, of course, but also because both sites today remain on the endangered cities list, criminally abused and neglected by their elected officials as well as cannibalized by the usual sources of corruption and crime. Let Texas stand for Sicily.
Today, in any case, I want to tell you a little something about the Napoli we don’t know—and by “we” I mean anyone who isn’t Napolitanx, or isn’t either Agostino Ferrente or Giovanni Piperno, and therefore hasn’t done the years of dedicated, passionate, and solicitous labor that went into the creation of the single most beautiful and essential work of documentary filmmaking that I have seen in decades, their 2013 film Le Cose belle (“Beautiful Things”). And by “we” I especially mean me, since, despite having spent a good portion of my recent years translating the one internationally celebrated Neapolitan writer I haven’t mentioned, I actually took my first-ever trip to visit Napoli just over a month ago, and I stayed less than two days. So by “we” I’m mainly thinking of the billions of people on earth who have visited Napoli many, many times in literature, music, and art, even if they’ve not yet spent even a single glorious weekend in the city. And for that we, I sincerely wish that you—like me—will soon have a chance to see Le Cose belle, and also, of course, that you someday get to have a pizza in the place that invented it. For now, though, find yourself a copy of the film—even if you have to buy it!
Ferrente and Piperno’s documentary—which won a slew of awards in Italy and abroad, but which hasn’t yet been distributed in the US—follows four young lives in Napoli. The film’s protagonists—two boys and two girls (all from what, in Italy, one usually refers to as “popular neighborhoods,” where the word “popular” means “like most people, in other words, not rich”)—were first cast by the directors for a 1999 video, Intervista a mia madre. Ten years later, the directors found the four again and, over the subsequent three years, filmed them as young adults, eventually building their 2013 masterpiece from both current footage and the earlier video. That was then, this is now. As Ferrente himself puts it, in an interview, “Our intention was to try and photograph time; even if putting it that way makes it sound abstract and presumptuous, it’s the truth.”
This comment from one of the co-directors also evokes the first of two voice-over commentaries that serve to frame the film. The opening credits are scrolled over an anonymous street in an anonymous Neapolitan neighborhood, with cars crossing right and left and pedestrians walking with umbrellas under the rain. Then, in a sequence that will be completed only after the final titles roll, we see Enzo, one of our four heroes, as a adult, looking very uncomfortable in front of a large, disk-shaped microphone. A metronome begins to click out its rhythm, and Enzo receives instructions from two offstage voices. Then the voice-over commentary begins, as Enzo closes his eyes and waits:
“They say that time heals everything, but who knows if time really exists? Maybe time is just a popular belief, a superstition, a good-luck charm, a trick. . . a song. . .”
Cut to Adele, another of the film’s protagonists; on the upper-left of the screen, a supratitle informs us that it is now thirteen years earlier, and the film proper begins.
Obviously, summarizing a film of this complexity is impossible. If you know Michael Apted’s Up series, you’ll have a sense of the issues involved, though Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is also worth associating with the film, since the pull of narrative construction and media fantasy is also central to Le Cose belle. When Ferrente and Piperno cast their 1999 documentary, of the hundred or so kids they interviewed, every boy wanted to play soccer and every girl wanted to be a model; the four they chose “were the only ones who quickly showed awareness that they wouldn’t be making it as soccer players or models” (116). In other words, the film is grounded in Berlusconi’s Italy, where mediatized success has taken the place of heaven in the popular imagination. Yet it also reflects two crucial moments in the history of Napoli, first the so-called Rinascimento Napoletano under mayor Antonio Bassolino, and second, the bitter end of that same period, when corruption, crime, and urban squalor reasserted their rule. What makes heroes of the protagonists of Le Cose belle, in a word, is survival: they haven’t given in, or given up, and they haven’t taken any easy way out.
So let me introduce you, at least briefly, to the four lives we follow. Along with Enzo and Adele, we enter into the experiences of Silvana and Fabio. Silvana, a willowy, tired, at times sardonic young woman, actually does say she wants to be a model, but when we first see her, she is sweeping a floor; her take-charge, nose-to-the-grindstone, do-what-needs-doing attitude makes her the most unswerving, constant presence among the film’s fabulous four. At one point, we learn that Silvana’s mother is in hospital, her brother is in a juvenile detention facility, and her boyfriend has been sentenced to house arrest. Later, in a telephone conversation with her ex-con father, she confesses to having dreamed that night about trying on a bridal gown, but then the police arrived; her father tells her that the police are good luck, and that she should play the numbers based on her dream. In a rare moment of fantasy, we then see Silvana modeling a wedding dress; the scene then cuts quickly from dream to reality, and we see her cleaning floors again and feeding her dogs, threatening to kill the big one after it chases off the puppy.
In the early video footage, Fabio is by far the most cinematic presence: cute kid and no doubt class clown, he delights in being interviewed, and he is comic, but also precocious and revealing, when he turns the camera on others. “Excuse me, policeman,” he comments, “Do you like your job?” “Of course.” “Have you ever killed a serial killer?” “No.” “Have you ever arrested anyone famous?” “No.” “So what are you doing in the police?” By the time the filmmakers find him again years later, however, Fabio’s brother has died. His mother explains,
One night he went out, he said, ‘See you later,’ and he never came home. It was the usual random people, out on the streets, who don’t understand the value of someone’s life. And I lost a son.
Despite an attempt to make a change, Fabio is drifting, without a job and without any real direction.
Though relations with parents are central to the portraits of all four characters, the rapport between Adele and her mother Carmela is particularly fraught and especially unforgettable. In a stunning scene from the early footage, the young Adele turns the camera on her mother, and asks her mother to tell, in a few words, the story of her elder sibling, Jessica. (We’ve already seen the two siblings together, and it’s clear they’re close.) Carmela pauses, then responds,
Jessica would be Giovanni. (Adele smiles.) When she was about ten, we found out that she was different. She wore skirts, she would dress up. These girls need to be accepted by the family. Because for me she’s a girl, in every aspect, she’s my daughter, and she’ll be treated like a girl. You don’t reject a child because they’re different. You love them even more.
Earlier Carmela has also confessed her disappointment in Adele, because of Adele’s aggressivity (though she also rejects the suggestion, given by Adele herself, she sees her as stupid). Adele says she learned aggression from Jessica, but the mother doesn’t agree. The confrontation between mother and daughter that comes later in the film is thus not unexpected, yet it is all the more devastating because we see it as inevitable, and because we identify with both sides of the conflict.
I’ve left Enzo for last, though I mentioned him first, because he’s the emotional center of the film. As a boy, he is a busker; his guitar-playing father takes him from restaurant to restaurant, where Enzo sings classico Napolitano (not that Michael Jackson stuff that appeals to a girlfriend from his old neighborhood). Surely his teddy-bear face must have spurred some degree of generosity in the clientage, though in the scenes we see the camera probably helped too. As an adult, shockingly, we find that Enzo has given up singing, and we’re never told why. Perhaps some things go too deep, and any explanation would seem superficial. Instead, we watch long takes of Enzo going door to door, hawking contracts for telephone and internet service; we also see touching scenes between him and his Nigerian-Italian girlfriend.
Late in the film, Enzo and his father go to a gathering for family or friends. The father plays and sings, and the others sing along; Enzo just looks uncomfortable and fiddles with his phone. As they leave the apartment, his father asks him one more time why he won’t sing anymore. Enzo changes the subject; rather than rehearse an old story, he wants to tell his father about the new girlfriend. “This girl,” Enzo say, “She’s Italian, but it’s as if she isn’t.” “Is she or isn’t she?” the father replies. After a guessing game about origins (“Russian?” “Polish?” “Ukrainian?”), Enzo tells him, and his father replies, “So, what’s the problem? It’s not like we’re racists.” “No, for heaven’s sake.” “Is she a good girl?” “She’s a good girl.” “Well then, you’re the one that has to like her.” With that, we see father and son walk off together in silence—same height, same shape, matching each other stride for stride.
As the film draws to a close, we watch Fabio on a Vespa, driving through the city at night, under the rain. The voice-over returns, to give us at last a gloss on the title of the film:
In Napoli they say, tante cose belle (“a lot of beautiful things”). It’s a wish you give to someone, and it can’t be translated into dialect. It has to be said in Italian, because in this sense “beauty” is a road that carries you a long way away, and everyone has to understand it. Maybe the deepest meaning of this expression is, ‘I can’t tell you that bad things won’t happen to you, but I really wish that beautiful things outnumber them, by a lot.
As this commentary ends, the scene cuts to Silvana, leaning against a wall and smoking. She’s waiting for a job interview with Avon. After the interview, we cut to dialogue from the earlier film, where Silvana argues that, “You make plans, and then everything goes wrong. So it’s best not to make plans.” The interviewer responds, “So then, tell me about the beautiful things.” Young Silvana repeats the phrase to herself, pauses, thinks again, and doesn’t respond.
With any documentary, or even in writing about a documentary, the greatest challenge is telling a story that won’t falsify the experience of its subjects. Every film is a story, and the choices made in order to shape and organize its footage are the meaning it suggests for that experience. Time may well be, as Ferrente and Piperno speculate, simply a superstition, a con game, or a silly love song. Yet according to the narratologist Gerry Prince, it’s also only through stories that we ever learn to read time at all. For precisely that reason, a film with the depth, complexity, and truth of Le Cose belle has much to teach us—about being in time.
Not just about being in Napoli, though that too.
Jim Hicks is the Executive Editor of The Massachusetts Review.