Justifiably acclaimed as a chronicle of war-ravaged woe and resilience under occupation, Norman Lewis' published diary "Naples '44" — about the young British intelligence officer's experiences in the southern Italian city following the American Fifth Army's invasion — has been given a feature-length companion guide in the form of a same-titled documentary.
Francesco Patierno's collage-like approach marries Benedict Cumberbatch's narration of judiciously chosen passages with thematically matching archival footage of World War II-era occupied Naples, scenes from Naples-set movies, and contemporary shots in which an older, reminiscing gentleman — presumably a Lewis stand-in — strolls those same streets.
The read-aloud excerpts speak to Lewis' elegant, empathetic powers of observation: blind, hungry children ignored by a restaurant's diners; the ingenuity of black marketeers and prostitutes; stricken housewives in a daily grind of survival; and an elderly lawyer friend clinging to the vestiges of a former life and playing the "uncle from Rome" at funerals for cash.
Lewis' account of Vesuvius's ill-timed eruption during his time there is masterful, as are his depictions of the citizenry's struggle to maintain religious devotion and reignite political passions. The movie around Cumberbatch's coolly spoken narration, however, is haphazardly assembled in tone, with no clear reason to include lengthy clips from Mike Nichols' "Catch-22" or Liliana Cavani's "The Skin" (among others) aside from their story-positioned relevance to the city at the time.
At most, "Naples '44" makes a solid case for turning to Lewis' prose and getting the full effect of his year there that way.
In English and Italian with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica