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Naples, a City of Contradictions, Is Once Again a Home for Cinema

NAPLES, Italy — Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film “The Hand of God” begins with a bird’s-eye view of Naples, his hometown, at dawn, with a lone vintage car traveling along a seafront road while the rest of the city uncharacteristically sleeps.

As a backdrop to this autobiographical coming-of-age story, Naples is at turns fantastical and decadent, sunny and unpredictable, comfortably familiar and ultimately confining.

Off camera, it is even more.

In the 20 years since Sorrentino last made a film here — his directorial debut “One Man Up” — the city has also matured as a center of movie making in Italy. These days, film and television crews are a common sight on Neapolitan streets, both downtown but also in its rougher hinterlands. These productions have nurtured the formation of a local industry, including actors, specialized technicians and cinematographers.

“There’s been enormous growth,” said Maurizio Gemma, the director of the local Film Commission of the Campania Region, which has focused on attracting and facilitating the work of film and television productions since 2005.

Back then, Gemma said, there were 10 or 12 projects shooting in the area. Today, “we are shooting nearly 150 projects a year,” he said, including big-budget television shows like HBO’s “My Brilliant Friend,” based on the best-selling Elena Ferrante novels.

“Our greatest satisfaction is that inside these important titles there’s the work of many professionals in our region,” Gemma said. But then, he added, “we’ve always had a propensity toward show business, culture; it’s part of our history, it’s in our DNA.”

Naples is a city of contradictions, of ornate Baroque palazzos alongside derelict housing, of unrelenting and unruly traffic and an official unemployment rate of 21.5 percent, twice the national average. But it is also a city of culture, both highbrow and popular, and the birthplace of songs like “O sole mio” and “Santa Lucia.”

Its shabby grandeur, narrow alleys and sweeping views of the Bay of Naples with Vesuvius as a backdrop make the city a natural open air film set.

In recent years, production sets have been drawn to the suburbs of Naples, and its less salubrious underbelly. The bleak 2009 film “Gomorrah” by Matteo Garrone, who is Roman, and the popular TV series of the same name brought these derelict areas to a wider international audience.

The director Antonio Capuano, who features prominently in “The Hand of God,” said at a recent screening of his 1998 film “Polvere di Napoli” — which he wrote with Sorrentino — that “Gomorrah” had become a “the postcard of Naples, and this is horrible.”

Pasquale Iaccio, the author of several books about Neapolitan cinema, said that “Gomorrah” was merely one “aspect of Naples among many other” clichés about the city that still held court.

He offered as proof an anecdote from the Neapolitan shoot for the film “Eat Pray Love,” where producers paid the residents of a downtown Naples alley to hang clothes and sheets from their windows, because an alley without them “just wouldn’t be Naples for the American script,” he said.

The cinematic attraction of Naples is keeping the city busy. “Let’s just say there’s a lot to do,” said Gea Vaccaro, a Naples city official overseeing the office that helps production companies navigate city bureaucracy and permits. “Naples is a complex city,” she said.

One of the ways the city helps visiting productions is to provide them with office space, setting aside rooms in a massive palazzo in the city center — Sorrentino’s team for “The Hand of God” occupied an airy room with ceiling frescoes.

Mayor Gaetano Manfredi, who was elected in October, said in an interview that the fertile cinematographic season “reinforced the international brand of Naples,” and permitted the considerable diaspora of Neapolitans living abroad to maintain a connection with their city.

“The economic angle should also not be discounted,” Manfredi said.

Last year, Italian regions set aside some 50 million euros ($57 million) to attract television and film productions, supplemented by other government funds and tax credits, according to Tina Bianchi, the secretary general of the Italian Film Commissions, the umbrella group for regional cinematic commissions.

The industry’s rapid growth has been some time in the making, according to Francesco Nardella, the deputy director of the arm of Italy’s national broadcaster that co-produces “Un Posto al Sole,” (“A Place in the Sun”) a wildly popular Italian weeknight drama set in Naples, as well as other series here.

“Un Posto al Sole,” which celebrated 25 years on the air last October, has been — and continues to be — “a fundamental motor” for movie making in Naples, Nardella said.

“Training” new generations of actors and technicians “is the key word,” he said. “And the seeds have grown.”

Alongside shows like “Un Posto al Sole” and “La Squadra,” another Naples-based series that ended a 10-season run in 2010, starting in the ’90s, film directors like Antonio Capuano, Pappi Corsicato, Stefano Incerti and Mario Martone brought Naples to the big screen.

“We draw on a reservoir filled with the most extraordinary actors that exists in Italy,” Martone said in an interview this week. His latest film, “Qui Rido Io,” (“The King of Laughter”) stars Toni Servillo, best known to American audiences as the lead in Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning “The Great Beauty.” Servillo was born in Afragola, a Neapolitan suburb, and acted onstage in the city for many years.

“Naples has returned to being the capital of Italian cinema, as it was at its origins,” said Martone, who opens “Qui Rido Io” with footage of the city shot by the Lumière brothers in 1898.

In the early years of cinema, Naples vied with Turin as the center of Italian movie making, and more than 350 films were made there during the silent era, according to Alex Marlow-Mann, a professor at the University of Kent in England who has written a book about Neapolitan cinema.

That all came to an end in the 1920s, when the local film industry ground to a halt during the fascist regime. Not only did Benito Mussolini centralize the industry in Rome, founding Cinecittà Film Studios in 1937, but he objected to the Neapolitan penchant for melodramas, often set in working-class environments, and spoken in dialect. “That was not the image of Italy Mussolini wanted to promote, so censorship set in,” Marlow-Mann said.

Movies continued to be made there after World War II, Marlow-Mann said, but they were mostly formulaic genre films that fell flat with critics, with the exception of films that followed in the long tradition of Neapolitan comedy, and it was only in the 1990s that Neapolitan cinema began to find its footing again.

At the end of “The Hand of God,” the character based on a young Sorrentino leaves Naples for Rome. Actually, Sorrentino only permanently left Naples when he was 37, living in his family home until that time, he said in a recent interview with an Italian newspaper.

In the film, Capuano (Ciro Capano) chides the young man for wanting to leave his hometown.

“No one gets outta this city,” the director tells him. “Do you know how many stories there are in this city. Look!,” he says peering out at a wide view of the Bay of Naples, as dusk sets.

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