'Naples '44': Film Review

A slow-starting but ultimately involving look at wartime privation through privileged eyes.

Benedict Cumberbatch reads from Norman Lewis' memoir of WWII in Francesco Patierno's doc.

An atmospheric attempt to conjure war-torn Naples through a string of appropriate film clips and the writings of an especially eloquent writer, Francesco Patierno's Naples '44 adapts the wartime memoir of Norman Lewis, a British intelligence officer who served there for a year. Reading the author's words beautifully, Benedict Cumberbatch gives this thoughtful but unconventional doc most of its commercial appeal. Even so, it will be a niche release in art houses.

For those unfamiliar with Lewis, who went on to an influential career in journalism and travel writing, the film's first half-hour is mildly off-putting. Pretty, to be sure, with sun-dappled present-day scenes and evocative old newsreels unspooling as Lewis recalls arriving in Naples via the Allies' invasion of Salerno. But minor-feeling, as if its only likely audience will be those History-channelers whose appetite for Last Good War tales knows no limit.

But as Lewis settles into his Army-commandeered lodgings (a grand-sounding palazzo) and his role in the community, the story's color emerges. Around the time Patierno starts using footage of Alan Arkin in Catch-22, Lewis spins some wry tales about, for instance, serving as occasional interpreter for an American soldier and an Italian woman who were lovers despite not speaking each other's languages.

Sex is much more than comic relief here. Observing the desperate poverty that surrounds him, even with Allied forces trying to get the city up and running again, he sees a vast population of women forced into prostitution. Nine out of 10 local women had lost their men, Lewis says, and the men who remained had to watch as the comparatively wealthy Yankees bought all the love they wanted. The author wonders how long the social aftershocks of this period would haunt Southern Italy.

Picking through Lewis' book (for which the film is named), Patierno extracts anecdotes and scene-setting instead of trying to flesh out a real narrative of his year here. When he is abruptly transferred out of Naples at the end of the film, Lewis' nostalgic reverie is full of people and places the movie hasn't had time to introduce. Still, the doc delivers enough arresting Neapolitan moments that many viewers will consider tracking down the source material — still in print, nearly four decades after Lewis published it in 1978.

Production company: Dazzle Communication, Rai Cinema
Distributor: First Run Features
Director: Francesco Patierno
Producers: Davide Azzolini, Francesca Barra
Editor: Maria Fantastica Valmori

88 minutes