Francesco Patierno (“The War of the Volcanoes”) assembles an impressive amount of footage shot in Naples at the end of World War II to illustrate his affectionate tribute to Norman Lewis’ towering memoir “Naples ’44.” Getting Benedict Cumberbatch on board as the narrator reading Lewis’ words is perhaps an even greater coup, yet the documentary is a weak, at times painfully misguided attempt to capture the great writer’s humane memoir of his year in Naples as a British soldier with the Intelligence Corps. Undoubtedly this movie will turn up on the History Channel or similar broadcast outlets, but the best outcome will be a spike in book sales rather than film rentals.
Lewis was 35 when he was posted from North Africa to newly liberated Naples in September 1943; he arrived to witness a city on its knees, devastated physically and morally from Fascism, severe bombings, the Nazi occupation, and then the Allied takeover. Lewis was assigned to investigate all manner of misbehavior by a populace whose social fabric had been torn to shreds, and he did so with sensitivity and an affection inseparably mingled with melancholy reflections on the war’s toll.
Patierno chooses a large selection of passages from Lewis’ diary (which wasn’t published until 1978), revealing the author’s interactions with the locals and his shock at how a proud population had been scarred by years of battle fatigue. Yet despite Cumberbatch’s warmly voiced intonations, the words often lose their beauty and power since the documentary has no sense of rhythm – where a reader can linger on especially poignant passages, musing on Lewis’ profoundly shaken understanding of man’s inhumanity to man, the film simply moves along, jumping from humbled aristocrats to middle class women prostituting themselves to Neapolitan kleptomania without the pauses necessary to take it all in.
Equally problematic is that Patierno doesn’t limit himself to using nonfiction footage but throws in clips from “The Four Days of Naples,” “Catch-22” and “Il re di Poggioreale,” among others, throwing the viewer completely out of Lewis’ world and substituting his reality for Ernest Borgnine and Keenan Wynn. For Italian audiences, it’s especially injudicious to use clips from movies starring the great comedian Totò whenever Lewis talks of his friend and informer Lattarulo, as it needlessly conflates the memoir’s dignified yet ambiguous figure with a clown. Curiously, Lewis’ not infrequent passages about massive corruption among the Allied officers are largely absent, and his gut-wrenching evocation of the female population’s degradation is passed over far too quickly.
Presumably to make the documentary more “accessible,” Patierno includes images of an actor walking through Naples, standing in for Lewis himself, who died in 2003. While certainly superior to the recreations that currently afflict nearly all TV documentaries, these serve little purpose.