"Too much beauty is disgusting," said Robert Bresson, a dictum put to the test in Carosello Napolitano (Neapolitan Carousel), Ettore Giannini's 1954 history of Neapolitan song, 130 minutes of beautiful music, singing, costumes, set design, cinematography, direction and people (Sophia Loren alone could cause beauty-overload). It's just screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in a dazzling new restoration.
As Hollywood was responding to The Red Shoes by inflating its musicals with longer and longer "ballets," suspending the plot and allowing Gene Kelly to strut his stuff, Giannini went a stage further, following Tales of Hoffmann by making a film in which song and dance threaten to overwhelm narrative altogether.
But there are actually three kinds of interwoven story in this film: first, we meet a family of show people, homeless and impoverished, scraping a neo-realist existence in post-war Naples, living on the songs of the past. Then we dive into stylized renditions of history, with the songs themselves creating short stories which can be explored via ballet sequences choreographed by The Red Shoes' Leonide Massine. The stories are connected by visual devices rather than by narrative connection, but add up to a history of Naples and its songs. Traveling through the centuries are the show people, eternally poor and hungry, immortal like the Wandering Jew, symbolic figures obviously, but also earthily real.
Giannini boldly leaps from theatrical studio sets to real locations, sometimes letting the stagey backdrops bleed into reality, sometimes simply cutting via a match on movement from sound stage to street, always with an eye to the most striking effect. The overwhelming beauty is complimented by a matching cleverness.
There are less successful moments: a song about a maiden who was raped by Moors and committed suicide is visualized as a stylized dance using the African ballet, and is rather too exotic and lovely to do justice to the horror depicted, a problem inherent in the original song. But then there's an astonishing sequence in which Massine himself plays Antonio Petito, a celebrated "Pulcinella," first in a surrealist ballet featuring a haystack of spaghetti and a giant watermelon with children's faces as seeds, then in "real life," re-enacting the artist's death on stage.
Also appearing is Spanish dancer Antonio, still a cult figure among gay audiences in Spain and future star of Michael Powell's Honeymoon (1959), and Loren, who is rewarded with the only close-up in the two hours-plus run-time, a tight forehead to chin view that may induce whiplash in the unwary.
It's amazing to think this was all happening at the same time as Neo-Realism and the pepla and ebullient sex comedies that accompanied Italy's economic miracle. Apart from the presence of some familiar faces, it seems to have little in common with any of them, apart from a hint of social conscience and some vibrant humor. It's Giannini's only solo film as director, a monolithic extravaganza with neither precedent nor antecedent, an eye-popping conglomeration of sound and movement and color. It's beautiful. It's too much. But it does not disgust: it sweeps you up.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.