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In the Ricky Gervais comedy The Invention of Lying, a world in which nobody can conceive of the concept of fiction, movies consist simply of a narrator reading from a book of historical facts. Naples ’44 isn’t quite that bare-bones, but at times it suggests a way Gervais’s characters could have spiced up their relentlessly literal films, as this documentary-of-sorts is an assemblage of vintage footage, new footage, and old movie clips spliced together beneath audio of Benedict Cumberbatch reading aloud the Norman Lewis World War II memoir of the same title. It’s basically a high-caliber book-on-tape augmented with actual (as opposed to horror-movie fake) found footage — a missing link between full-on dramatization and simply reading the book while imagining visuals.
The approach works best when the available clips match the text exactly, as when Vesuvius erupts and Cumberbatch-as-Lewis describes the smoke plume as looking like an immobile, solid object. Black-and-white video from the time confirms it as exactly that. But when the generic doesn’t match the specific, as it doesn’t during a particularly famous paragraph about blind girls, the images in your head may be an improvement.
Eighty-five minutes of this is about right, as is the balance between tragic stories of dead children and amusing asides about the sexual peccadilloes of the Neapolitans, though it can be argued that either Lewis or director Francesco Patierno consciously avoids the true horrors of hooking in favor of a tee-hee bedroom-comedy approach common to the appropriated clips. In the end, the most important point made is that postwar occupation is hard, hard work…one you hope today’s stateside politicians will someday take on board.
Written and directed by Francesco Patierno
First Run Features
Opens November 29, Film Forum