Apr 30, 2013

The Kingdom of Naples

If one needed to see indisputable evidence that German New Cinema dandy auteur Werner Schroeter (Eika Katappa, Der Rosenkönig aka The Rose King) was more than a morbidly depressed diva addict with an immaculate and wildly idiosyncratic knack for communicating his campy cognitive dissonance on screen in a solely tableau-obsessed manner, one just needs to see his kraut-Guido neo-neorealist flick Nel regno di Napoli (1978) aka Neapolitanische Geschichten aka The Reign of Naples aka The Kingdom of Naples—a decidedly decadent yet refined Teutonic look at the Southern Italian proletarian soul over a three decade period created by a German man who spent enough time in the city of Naples as a student to appreciate the most forsaken families of the intrinsically impoverished post-industrial wasteland. Schroeter’s first feature shot on 35mm film stock and a work that would earn the filmmaker the 1979 German Film Prize for “Best Direction” in a country that thought of him as a "art cut," The Kingdom of Naples depicts a brother and sister from a poor-as-dirt family from their births at the time of the end of fascism in the city to the equally dystopian early 1970s, otherwise known as the “Bourbon era” of Naples, when it seemed liked there was no hope for the hopeless in the spiritually devitalized, increasingly Americanized South Italian metropolis. Essentially beginning where Italian Freudian-Marxist auteur Bernardo Bertolucci’s sickeningly sentimental and superficial com-symp epic 1900 (1976) aka Novecento left off, albeit using all Italian actors (both professional and non-professional), The Kingdom of Naples brings a certain ‘pessimistic pep’ via Schroeter's sharp operatic direction and dandy colorfulness to the seemingly static neorealist genre, thus giving the destitute characters of the film a certain sense of dignity that even eclipses the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini (Mamma Roma, Teorema), but without portraying them in a soulless, idealistic and propagandistic Marxist manner. While German New Cinema alpha-auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder found his friend Schroeter’s second excursion in quasi-neorealism, Palermo oder Wolfsburg aka (1980) Palermo or Wolfsburg, to be one of the “most disappointing” films of Teutonic cinema, he regarded his celluloid compatriot's flick The Kingdom of Naples as one of the best of the post-WWII Fatherland, even writing a highly flattering essay in tribute to the film and filmmaker behind it. In his 1979 essay “Chin-up, Handstand, Salto Mortale—Firm Footing: On the Film Director Werner Schroeter, Who Achieved What Few, Achieve, with Kingdom of Naples,” Fassbinder wrote: “A great and important film. Incredible, after the terrible years of waiting, always on the verge of simply drying up. A film that without hesitation can be classed with Ossessione by Visconti, La Strada by Fellini, Mamma Roma by Pasolini, Rocco and His Brothers by Visconti, Les bonnes femmes by Chabrol, Le diable probablement by Bresson, The Exterminating Angel by Buñuel, and others like that.” Indeed, The Kingdom of Naples is indisputable proof that at least one German filmmaker, Werner Schroeter, was able to do the seemingly impossible by getting inside the most miserable pockets of the Mediterranean soul and exposing it for the entire world to see, thus illustrating that the Third World is not the only place where people are literally starving, but also ancient old world Europe. 

Although a largely narrative-driven work with a fictional linear plot (albeit based on real-life events director Werner Schroeter personally read in newspapers) told in sixteen episodes, The Kingdom of Naples also acts as a seamless documentary film-within-a-film that chronicles the history of events that took place in Naples from 1943-1972 and that ultimately acts as the chronicled skeleton of the film. Beginning in 1943, the viewer learns that Naples was the first Italian city to be liberated by Italian fascism (apparently, they literally killed German soldiers for food, thus forcing the troops to abandon the city) and, naturally, by 1946 there were virtually nil jobs for men, but that is the least of the people’s problems because as a bold and beautiful yet bitchy middle-aged lady named Valeria Cavioli (Liana Trouche) states—thus symbolically illustrating the matriarchal essence of Italian society—to a group of jobless men after the birth of baby named Vittoria Pagano, “What idiots, these men. During the war, all they can make are girls.” Vittoria has an older brother named Massimo and like their parents—the father (Dino Mele) being a fiercely fanatical anti-Catholic and the mother (Renata Zamengo) being a dearly devout Catholic—they are quite the opposites and they will grow further apart in political and social persuasion as they come-of-age in war-torn Southern Europa. Next door lives a callous widow named Valeria and her dainty daughter Rosa (Laura Sodano), whose malicious mother trades her damned daughter’s virginity to a chocolate-wielding black U.S. sailor for a mere bag of flour with “U.S.A.” stamped on it, thus irreparably destroying the innocent girl’s sense of person dignity for what will be the rest of her miserable life. Indeed, such dehumanizing acts are the norm in the impoverished ghettos of post-WWII Naples, where rich pedophiles conspire to lure in proletarian children with their exotic pet fish and fat cat Catholic priests wallow in their own gluttony as their followers starve in a ghetto right next door to the church. As narrated in The King of Naples, by 1948, “a progressive economic model, which turned out to be extremely reactionary in nature. Free reign for the employer who exploits the workers. Repression and exploitation in the factories…The Pope also prays to the Holy Mother to bring about a miracle, so the people vote for the Christian Democrats.” Of course, the potential “miracle” is not of a Christian Democrat persuasion, but an atheist Marxist sort. Not unsurprisingly, when mother Pagano dies in a martyr-like manner as she allegorically bleeds from her womb, her children inevitably respond to it in rather extreme manners, with Vittoria dreaming of being a nun, while her brother Massimo dreams of being a Marxist revolutionary. 

 When radical Spanish Marxist refugee and Franco opponent Alessandro Simonetti (Swiss auteur Daniel Schmid’s one-time boyfriend Raúl Gimenez)—a student of Italian far-left revolutionary Antonio Gramsci who seems to worship the Italian Marxist martyr and onetime leader of the Communist Party of Italy like a Catholic would worship Christ—arrives in Naples, he inspires hope in the hapless folk in the Guido ghetto, including Massimo, who goes on to work for free at the communist revolutionary’s party headquarters, and Valeria, who marries the charismatic would-be-messiah of leftist materialism. Vittoria attempts to be a nun, but her sternly anti-pope pop puts a quick end to that dream. Meanwhile, Massimo finds a surrogate mother figure in a French nurse turned prostitute Rosaria aka “Frenchie” (Pasolini regular Margareth Clémenti )—a family friend who was at the birth of Vittoria—who makes him pay to play with her voluptuous body. Vittoria herself almost becomes a prostitute at the age of 16 when a conspiring redhead bitch named Pupetta Ferrante (Ida Di Benedetto) who looks like a witchy drag-queen and owns a metal factory, hires her under the false pretense of being a cleaner and eventually offers the poor girl to move in her home to better job where she will meet countless “first class people.” Desperate and against Marxist Massimo’s wishes, Vittoria’s father persuades his daughter to move in with Ferrante, but the teenage girl soon learns that she has been hired as a prostitute and thus she flees the nefarious bourgeois bitch's house. An all around con of a cunt, Ferrante refuses to pay her overworked factory laborers, which results in a scuffle that leaves the men dead and the quasi-femme fatale boss a coldblooded murderer. Valeria also attempts to whore out her daughter Rosa to seemingly gay, mama’s boy attorney  and Christian democratic big wig named Palumbo (Gerardo D'Andrea), but instead she calls her manipulative mother a “whore” and gets extremely sick, eventually pointlessly dying because there are no antibiotics in Naples. Enraged, Valeria blames and kills her failed Marxist revolutionary husband Simonetti for Rosa’s premature and easily avoidable death because he promised a glorious Bolshevik worker's utopia, but failed to deliver anything but false promises and cheap charisma. Although Valeria only serves a short prison sentence, she is institutionalized in a mental hospital, where she admits to Massimo and Vittoria that she was gang raped by four men during the Second World War. Although Simonetti is dead, Massimo remains a stern communist and is ultimately arrested for his subversive political affiliations. In year 1970 as the narrator of The Kingdom of Naples states, “We have returned to a climate of uncertainty. Massimo has served his prison sentence. Will he still be a dreamer?” Now a husband and father of meager means who after about two decades of unflinching dedication to Marxism, is no closer to the commie dream, but instead witnesses the death of his beloved Frenchie and his holy sister settling for a career as a flashy flight attendant, Massimo leaves with the words of wisdom, “With so much sulphur in the air, people are destined to die. They dig from morning to evening in this filth. And the work robs you of all joy. What kind of a life is that?” 

A nearly immaculate marriage between realist melodrama and documentary collage, The Kingdom of Naples achieves what German New Cinema co-founder Alexander Kluge has been trying to accomplish his entire career, but whose sterile and pedantic Marxist intellectualism, seeming lack of artistic spirit, and pomo posturing have always prevented him from realizing. Indeed, The Kingdom of Naples is a true proletarian flick, yet executed with the sensitivity and nuance of a true maestro and aristocrat of aestheticism with a genuine love and respect for an alien people. Of course, where The Kingdom of Naples is different from the Italian neorealist films, especially those by Pasolini, that inspired it is that Schroeter seems to have no love for communism nor the Catholic church—both of which are portrayed in The Kingdom of Naples as parasitic entities that make endless promises of salvation and an utopian future yet never deliver anything aside from false hope—but only the people of the region, whose survival is totally based on their desperate will to live and nothing more, hence why a mother gives away her virginal daughter away to a Negro American sailor for a mere bag of flour and a young girl grows up to be a stewardess instead of the holy nun she always dream of being. Indeed, The Kingdom of Naples has the sort of uncompromising cultural pessimism that could have only been assembled by a German filmmaker lacking a certain Mediterranean flamboyance and pomposity, so it should be no surprise that the film was not very popular in Italy as it was in Germany, even inspiring Schroeter’s friend Fassbinder to state of his cinematic compatriot's first big commercial and critic hit, “So Germany has not only three, or five, or ten film directors to show off; it has now acquired another one who was certainly needed. One with a great deal to say. A great one, to put it simply.” And, indeed, Schroeter says as much as an Ausländer can say about a strange foreign land in The Kingdom of Naples, to the point where I asked myself whether or not the poverty plagued population would have been better off with the fascism that once made the trains run on time, or simply being nuked into oblivion as few other films get at the heart of collective misery and tragedy, and stoically and unsentimentally let us know there is not a cure, despite what the communist party or Catholic church promises with their pseudo-altruistic verbal swill.  Indeed, the Teutonic king of German celluloid kitsch proved with The Kingdom of Naples that every ghetto has its revolutionaries and divas, but instead of killing wealthy aristocrats and performing for sold-out operas, they are dumping trash into the sea and peddling their pussies for pennies on the dollar.  With the economic crisis in Europe hitting the Mediterranean countries the hardest, The Kingdom of Naples might not make for the most inspiring film for contemporary Southern Europeans to watch, but it will certainly make them second guess worthless intellectual abstractions some messianic Marxist demigod is peddling like a glorified whore on a city street corner.

-Ty E

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