As if in Caravaggio’s famous paintings, sombre drama and lighter scenes are juxtaposed in the age old streets and piazzas of Naples. Here, colourful Neapolitans have survived a chaotic life of joy and sorrow for 2500 years. In the meantime the volcano Vesuvius sleeps with one eye open. The incomparable splendour of Naples, situated in the shadow of a volcano and by the blue sea of an enormous bay, inspired Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to the famous statement: See Naples and die. But Naples also has a more complex side. Behind the splendour and pomp that dates from the time when Naples still had great political and social influence, one can also find poverty and adversity.
The film director Vincent Monnikendam ends in the backstreets and steep alleyways where sunlight barely penetrates, where dark drama and frivolity keep the age-old city in their grip. The Seven Acts of Mercy by Caravaggio, the master of the claire-obscure. This altar piece was painted in 1607, commissioned by the noble founders of the Pio Monte della Misericordia, a charitable institution that is still active. The central feature of the film is the painting.
Myths about this painting, the history of the Pio Monte, the joy and sorrow of Neapolitans, alternate and combine to form a colourful portrait. With a leading role for the city of Naples itself.
Among the important characters in Souls of Naples are Pietro Gargano, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Il Mattino and a connoisseur of urban history, and Gian Paolo Leonetti, former chairman of the Pio Monte della Misericordia and a descendant of a noble family. The baroque interior of the villa where we meet contrasts with the sober entourage of the inner city. This is where the transsexual Gianni earns a meagre income by selling lottery tickets and Pina tells us about her difficult existence while she sews trendy handbags in a small factory located in an old cellar. The Russian painter Natalia Tsarkova tries to communicate in her own work the essence of claire-obscure in the paintings by Caravaggio whom she so admires. According to her, the special lighting effects with powerful contrasts so characteristic of his work are the symbol of survival, for good and evil, for life and death. In a style inspired by these characteristic light-dark contrasts, Souls of Naples provides an inspiring portrait of a city that has survived for two and half thousand years.