Usually, the mafia is depicted as a men’s organization.

Willemien Sanders
Dr. Willemien Sanders, lecturer, department of media and culture studies, Utrecht University.

Two films on Naples are filled with statements, stories, context and interpretations. While director Stokman takes a kind of helicopter view, director Ferrara immerses himself in Naples. As WilleMien SAnDerS writes, the first looks at various aspects of the crime scene from a traditional distance, while the other interweaves several fictional storylines with interviews and historical film material – and himself.

Two films picture the Italian city of Naples. Both focus on the omnipresence of the mafia. Walter Stokman’s Scena del crimine sketches the city and a number of its inhabitant and includes a note of hope: there is another option besides joining the sistema. Abel Ferrara’s Napoli Napoli Napoli, a mix of documentary film, historical footage and scripted scenes with a reflexive note, is more negative: the Mafia; that is all of us. Both filmmakers are outsiders who enter a complex and controversial society to make a film about it. Ferrara is of Italian descent but was born in the Bronx, NY, and Stokman is Dutch. The outsider Ferrara is present throughout the film, making it highly reflexive. A few minutes into the film we already see him in the streets, explaining something, and in a car apparently driving up to a women´s prison.

Throughout the film, single shots of Ferrara and the crew are interspersed. And we hear Ferrara asking additional questions or requesting more information during interviews, which were obviously conducted by someone else, someone who speaks the language. Ferrara ends the film with images of a performance he gave with his band during a festival in Naples. This footage is mixed with images of a meeting with the women we recognize as participants (is he recruiting them here?).

Reflexivity is also present in Ferrara’s filming style. Interviews with various locals, such as politicians, a social worker, a journalist and a former judge, are all filmed from two angles, and one suspects with two cameras, which makes it possible to film the interview situation itself as well. During one of the interviews with a female convict we see the cameraman walking towards her. A microphone is visible and it seems no effort has been made to hide or correct this.

Abel Ferrara documentaries. Napoli Napoli Napoli

In contrast, in Scena del crimine the camera is observing, sometimes close, sometimes more distanced. Stokman just seems to listen and watch quietly, taking his time, looking around, adding images that just show us where we are, as establishing shots. As a traditional documentary filmmaker he ‘hides’ himself and lets the film speak for itself. The only explicit stylistic choice he makes are black and white contrast images of juvenile delinquents to protect their identity. In the opening scenes of Scena del crimine we see photos of crime scenes: blood-stained spots, a switch, a mattress, a car. We hear a telephone conversation between a female police officer and someone reporting a robbery. A fiction film could open like this, and it underlines the closed narrative of the film. Stokman then takes us to Nisida, a youth prison. Over the convicts’ tales we see images of prison life as well as images of Naples, the streets, the buildings, a stray cat. This way he adds images to illustrate the stories but moreover relates the story being told to the city instead of to a singular individual.

The story transcends the person telling it. Most of the interviews in this film have been detached from their speakers. The film shows the personal account of a grandmother who stayed away from drugs (she says) but takes care of five grandchildren. Then images of robberies, some surprisingly shameless, in broad daylight, in front of children, without the perpetrators making an effort to conceal their identity. Later we arrive at the other side: a forensic expert talking about his work accompanied by images of his research and of crime scenes.

And last the Nunziatella military academy, where the recruits talk about their choice to join the army but also of the circumstances that made this possible: a supporting family that can afford it. Through the more personal and individual stories of Emanuela and petty criminal Mauro who is under house arrest we return to Nisida youth prison. Stokman shows these people and places in seven consecutive chapters. Scena del crimine explores, looks around, observes, and listens. The interviews are individual and personal; the film gives space to individual participants to show themselves, not interrupted and cut into a larger story per se but as individuals. Yet, the stories are lifted to a more general level through the editing.

Ferrara interweaves several fictional storylines with interviews and historical film material, and with himself. We jump from one place to the next and all elements are interwoven into an intricate piece of work. Ferrara cum suis interviewed female convicts and edited the interviews quite systematically, interrogation-like: they are all asked to mention their name, their age, where in Naples they are from and what brought them to jail. The rest of their stories, about their arrest and their hopes (or lack thereof) for the future, when they get out, follow later in the film, in several separate sections but with the same kind of systematic approach. (Neapolitan officials interviewed for the film introduce themselves with the
same personal data, but talk about the situation in general; where politics failed and how they try to offer activities for young people.)

Napoli Napoli Napoli

Napoli Napoli Napoli also contains male convicts: we see them crammed in their cell, trying to survive together. The men are presented as one group, never alone, while the women are shown individually. The men are mostly inside, the women sit outside, a wall with blooming plants in the background. Usually, the Mafia is depicted as a men’s organization. These women joined in, sometimes by lack of alternative, sometimes through their partners, sometimes taking the blame for a daughter. Their presence, their stories, reinforce the idea that the Mafia is unavoidable. But what is Ferrara saying with this way of depicting the sexes? Are the women victims and do they deserve better? Do they deserve their freedom? In one scene towards the end of the film, Ferrara also seems to assess the women: one does not understand a question, another says reading makes her tired so she doesn’t, another dropped out of school.

Is Ferrara reinforcing prejudices? Or is he showing the level of education and sophistication of these women and thus the hopelessness of their situation? In addition, Ferrara includes a historical perspective by using old footage from Naples ’66 by Emilio Marsili, footage in black and white of the dilapidated areas of the city that need mending. Back then, as now. The host in this old footage discusses speculation in real estate. This seamlessly joins up with a storyline about a social housing project from which people are to be evicted, against which a protest is organised. Napoli feels filled to the rim with statements, stories, context and interpretations. It seems like Ferrara wants to have his say on everything.

Abel Ferrara

Altogether, Ferrara seems more the social scientist who tries to uncover the workings of this specific Neapolitan society and explain it from an historical perspective. At the same time he seems to be trying to say something about filmmaking. His interviews are an invitation to reflect on the interview as a means of portraying people and the power a filmmaker has to use them as he sees fit.
Both films have Naples as their starting point. They revolve around the idea that, in the end, Naples equals the Mafia (sistema). Crime, and the mob, seem to connect everything and are unavoidable when you live in Naples.

In Napoli Napoli Napoli, the sistema permeates every aspect of life. Or, as journalist Roberto Paulo puts it: “Even going to a café for coffee means giving money to the Mafia.” In Scena del crimine there is an alternative (join the army) but life still revolves around the Mafia: either join it or fight it. Napoli Napoli Napoli is very self-conscious and, moreover, very Ferrara-conscious. But how can a film by Ferrara not also be about Ferrara? However, it draws the attention away from the subject matter and the people. It is almost more about Ferrara  than about Napoli. This is reinforced by the end of the film, where we watch the gig Ferrara and his friends gave at a Naples festival. Stokman is more like a forensic researcher, and takes a kind of helicopter view, while Ferrara literally immerses himself in Naples.

Although it may sound like Napoli Napoli Napoli has more to offer, this is not necessarily the case. In the end one wonders what Ferrara really wants to say with the film. It may seem an ode to Naples and its people in way, but isn’t it more an ode to himself? Scena del Crimine seems less complex but is not less complete. It shows Naples in a limited number of clean thoughtful scenes, paying full attention to more personal accounts from the limited number of people involved.

 


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