The Four Days of Naples were four days of intense fighting between the Neapolitan population and the German occupying forces, four days when Naples became a urban battlefield and men, women and children, scrounging whatever weapons they could, engaged in guerrilla warfare against better trained and equipped German soldiers and forced them out of the city.
Nanni Loy’s film, which takes its title after the name of this popular uprising, is a patriotic movie, dedicated to the people of Naples. It’s cinema of heroism, of selfless heroes, of good versus evil. This probably didn’t sound so ridiculous fifty years ago and we should forgive the movie for not having aged adequately to suit our modern cynicism.
1943. Naples endures daily bombings. The Allied Forces are approaching. As the war reaches its end for Italy, German forces occupy Naples, disarm the population and round them up in security zones. Escape is impossible. Disobedience is punished with death.
The movie begins with celebrating, with a religious procession. Shortly after news announce the end of the war. The initial euphoria of freedom only lasts until the Germans kill an innocent sailor returning from the war as a warning against not collaborating. The Neapolitans endure many humiliations, but the last straw comes when the Germans start conscripting men to send to Germany for forced labour.
The uprising is a spontaneous happening that deflagrates unconnectedly in several parts of the city at the same time. Some men attempt to rescue hostages held captive at a stadium. Somewhere else hidden Italian soldiers organise and unearth guns they hid before the Germans’ arrival. In the narrow streets German troops are ambushed by families dropping furniture on them and crashing ruined walls on them. Children from correction houses form their own militias. Soon everyone is involved in the war effort.
The plot digresses from situation to situation, as unpredictable as a butterfly’s flight pattern. There are no stars here because the whole population of Naples is the star. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few recognisable faces for fans of Italian cinema, but no one takes centre stage. Loy’s camera opts instead to give a panoramic view of the city.
The movie was shot mostly in Naples. Almost twenty years after the events depicted in the movie, the city still displayed many derelict buildings and looked like the site of a recent battle. Loy makes a splendid use of this landscape of debris, especially when he films deserted narrow streets and wide piazzas. This stillness before the fighting sometimes is more suffocating than the action. The movie hinges a lot on suspense, we keep waiting for the outbreak and Loy sadistically forces us to wait and wait. When the uprising starts, we’re like Naples’ population, unable to hold any longer.
The movie is violent, showing not just violence aimed at the body but one that assaults our and the characters’ feelings and values. Loy shows intense scenes of fighting, but it’s the quiet moments that reveal the brutality of war: when a mother gives her last piece of food to her child; when people search for their loved ones amongst dead bodies; when families are torn apart. The movie works so well because it shows why war is both physically and psychologically repulsive.
We’ve all seen war movies. But for me the best aren’t the ones that have the best sound editing or the most convincing action scenes. That’s just technical improvement. I think the best war movies are the ones that, paradoxically, show eternal human values. The best, like Platoon, Merry Christmas, Breaker Morant, or The Four Days of Naples engage us with ideas about human dignity, friendship, freedom, and altruism. For that reason The Four Days of Naples is a timeless masterpiece of cinema.
Director: Nanni Loy
Screenplay: Pasquale Festa Campanile, Massimo Franciosa, Nanni Loy, Vasco Pratolini, Carlo Bernari (screenwriters), Aldo De Jaco (book)
Cast: Frank Wolff, Gian Maria Volontè, Regina Bianchi, Aldo Giuffré
Runtime: 124 mins