Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews     entry May 2008

urbanology (10)

Munnezza e Bellezza”

That is the title of Lina Wertmüller’s new documentary about Naples. (Collaborating with Wertmüller were journalist Francesco Brancatella and sociologist Domenico De Masi.) It ran on Italian national TV on Sunday, May 11, 2008. You don’t need the sub-title —“a look at Naples”— to know what it’s about since munnezza is Neapolitan dialect for “garbage.”  Thus, Garbage and Beauty in Naples will do the trick as a translation although it loses the sad irony of the original rhyme. Yes, “garbage” and “beauty” sound poetic together in Neapolitan, perhaps something like Beauty and the Beast. The title may hint at a static inevitability about the pairing of the two. (I hope not, but that thought has occurred to me.)

The Neapolitan problem is well-known by now. Not even electricity and running water are as essential to the civilized survival of a city in the western world as taking out the trash and avoiding not just the obvious problems of public health but the cynical depression that settles on one million people living in stench and filth. Local bloggers were quick off the mark, even before the program ran, hoping it would not just trot out tourist postcards of the Bay of Naples while ‘O sole mio ran in the background. It was, luckily, not that. (As a matter of fact, the real musical leitmotif was Pino Daniele’s Napule è, a melancholy litany of how Naples has gone wrong.)

Munnezza e Bellezza is thick with the sociology and history of blame. In between alternating shots of garbage and beautiful castles and coast, there are excerpts from some films that have tried to explain Naples to the rest of Italy—and to the rest of the world. Wertmüller uses a couple of Francesco Rosi’s highly political films, C’era una volta (1967), about the Spanish vicerealm of Naples in the 1600s, and his Le mani sulle città 1963, about systemic corruption in post-war Naples. As well, she uses parts of her own Una domenica di novembre (1981) that deals with the Bourbon dynasty that ruled the Kingdom of Naples before its annexation into united Italy.

There are also interviews with the ex-mayor of Naples as well as with the current one, with journalists and with people on the street. The waste problem in Naples is seen as a metaphor of the potential collapse of rampant consumerism everywhere. The director says elsewhere that she thinks the city is getting a bum rap from the world press. The same thing happens in other places, but you just don’t read about it all the time. (Without denying “potential collapse of rampant consumerism,” I’m not so sure about that. Wertmüller, more than any other living Italian director, as her films show, is in love with the visual that stuns, shocks, and delights; thus, she loves Naples. She has spent time and resources in helping to restore the beauty of the city, so maybe she gets a pass on that one.)

There are three possibilities: (1) It’s the fault of the camorra (the Neapolitan version of the mafia; (2) It’s the fault of the central Italian government; (3) It’s the fault of the fatalism in Neapolitans that accepts corruption and anarchy. Or maybe it’s all of the above.

Well, since the “mob” is into everything, at least some of the fault must be theirs. After all, for many years they sold cheap dump sites near Naples to northern firms—sites that are now full. The second point rests on the fact that Naples, the old capital of its own kingdom, has never recovered from being beaten in the 1860/61 war of Italian unification and then plundered by the victors, the government of the new Italy. There still is no trust of the central government; thus, you are left with an “every man for himself” atmosphere, in which greed and corruption flourish.

That third point is more difficult to deal with. Mark Twain wrote in The Innocents Abroad that

…the contrasts between opulence and poverty, and magnificence and misery, are more frequent and more striking in Naples than in Paris even… Naked boys of nine years and the fancy-dressed children of luxury; shreds and tatters, and brilliant uniforms; jackass carts and state carriages; beggars, princes, and bishops, jostle each other in every street.

Obviously, times have changed since the 1860s when that was written, but today in Naples the contrast between the villas of Posillipo and the slums of Scampia is still marked to a degree found in few places in Europe. Even earlier, when Vincenzo Cuoco was writing about why the French-imposed Neapolitan Republicof 1799 failed, he said:

The Neapolitan nation was split in two, separated over two centuries into two very different kinds of people. The educated classes were formed on foreign models and possessed a culture quite different from one that the nation needed, one that could come about only through the development of our own faculties. Some had become French, and some English; and those that stayed Neapolitan—most of the people—stayed uneducated.

Are there still two different peoples who call themselves “Neapolitans” after all these years —centuries!? Yes, and the existence of an entrenched underclass in Naples is a bigger problem than the garbage, but that is a topic for another documentary. The existence of the underclass, however, does breed “fatalism, corruption and anarchy,” a situation not conducive to efficient social services, so maybe that third point is not irrelevant.

Actually, “Munnezza e Bellezza”  has somewhat of an upbeat ending: new train stations, new science labs, the improvement in the status of women in Naples. etc. Wertmüller has heard the oft-ground political axe that says if we spend money restoring that beautiful statue over there (bellezza) we won’t have enough to solve urban problems (munnezza). She rejects that, and, brother, so do I.

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