Ferrante fever hits the States (again)

HBO adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels debuts this month

Alice Fischetti
November 6, 2018 - 17:00

Across the Atlantic, far from their supposed site of conception, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels rank amongst the best-received Italian literary series authored by a woman—or rather, a pseudonymous author presumed to be female. The four-book series, centered on the impassioned friendship between two girls coming of age in an impoverished Naples, has generated as much “Ferrante Fever” among American readers as it has polemics surrounding the author’s anonymity. Now, four years after the publication of the final tale, Ferrante’s voice witnesses its on-screen translation as an eight-episode adaptation of the first book, My Brilliant Friend, with official HBO launch (in the U.S.) set for November 18.

Actresses Ludovica Nasti and Elisa Del Genio / Ph. Eduardo Castaldo



A portrait of postwar Italy in the 1950s, the series traverses themes of ignorance, masculinity, the complexity of female friendship and rigid socio-economic barriers, vividly recounting six decades of ties between protagonists Elena Greco and Raffaella Cerullo. Having been translated into 40 languages and sold over five million copies worldwide, Ferrante’s story is captivating, convincing and most importantly, one worth telling; the buzz around Saverio Costanzo’s onscreen adaptation (which debuted to high praise at the Venice Film Festival) has revived a dialogue around the story’s reception in Italy versus abroad.

Ferrante’s stateside literary success, a contrast to her lukewarm reception in Italy, provoked a stark division among Italian readers: those who read her triumph abroad as symptomatic of Italy’s inability to recognize its own talent, and those who justify her fame, citing a “touristic rendering of Naples” and simple language as plausible draws for non-Italian readers (Rebecca Falkoff, To Translate is to Betray: On the Elena Ferrante Phenomenon in Italy and the US).

Indeed, the grand success of an Italian work abroad is often met with a question—what, critics ask, is so appealing about this particular portrait of Italy? Take Cristiano de Majo’s likening of Ferrante to the great success of Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning film The Great Beauty (which suffered a similar fate to Ferrante in Italy). Puzzled by the foreign praise, de Majo’s piece ponders “the feeling of being a guest” in a work of fiction: “ to see things without an emotional haze, at just the right distance, with clarity: is this not perhaps the most effective way to look at Italy today? Perhaps a way that makes Italy more understandable to the foreigner?” (La narrazione esotica italiana all’estero).


Gaia Girace (L) and Lila Margherita Mazzucco (R) /
Ph. Eduardo Castaldo 


Converting Ferrante’s applauded writing to the screen begs the question of whether the story in visual form will subvert the current trend. Are the central themes, plot and narrative voice of My Brilliant Friend truly not as relevant to Italians as they are to a foreign audience?


The first two episodes of the HBO-RAI Fiction production, previewed here in Florence at Cinema Odeon, unveil the birth and early progression of the friendship between Raffaella ‘Lila’ and Elena, respectively played by Ludovica Nasti and Elisa Del Genio, around a story set closer to the present day. Here, an aged Elena discovers Lila has vanished without a trace and takes to writing to recapture the existence of her lifelong friend. In her story, the two young girls, placed in a setting of poverty, violence and the imminent end of childhood, stitch their friendship on a shared brilliance in school and a desire to use writing as a means of escaping “the plebs,” as Elena writes.

Their friendship, the plights of daily life in poverty and the desire to excel—met with the reluctance of their parents to send the girls to school—drive the opening episodes. The subjects are broad enough, but form a nonetheless Naples-specific storyline that brings the patriarchal structure of the time into plain view. (“Why should your sister, a girl, study?!” barks Lila’s father in a telling scene.) From the previewed episodes, the characters are quite faithful to Ferrante’s (with the re-organization of plot required by cinematic adaptations), flawlessly translating the raw nature of Ferrante’s writing, all in a herculean 20,000-square-meter recreation of 1950s southern Italy.



Florence-based actor and director Tim Daish, cast as one of the few—if not the only—English-speaking supporting characters, was immediately touched by the digestible reality of the setting, perhaps highlighting the very “clarity” Italian critics have referred to: “ {The series} captures a sort of nostalgia, but without feeling like a love letter to Naples during that period,” Daish says. Daish, who plays a foreigner encountered during Elena’s adolescent adventures, notes how the progressive series avoids the “fantasyland” pitfalls of many Italy-based stories with broad foreign audiences: “It feels very organic,” he adds.


The “organic” element of this storyline, its closeness to reality, is apparent in almost all of its central themes. Yet perhaps that of education as a means of escaping poverty, as suggested by critics, is the one that will resonate most with wider audiences. A story of seeking emancipation through writing is reasonable, relatable, a valid experience to be shared and immortalized through the plight of two ordinary—though brilliant—women. Of course, this opening storyline is not only credible but also potentially appealing to an audience whose history is so intimately tied to questions of personal freedom.

Are the central themes, plot and narrative voice of My Brilliant Friend truly not as relevant to Italians as they are to a foreign audience?


In Italy, as noted by Falkoff, the batch of critics recognizing Ferrante’s bravura defend the novel’s foreign success as deserved recognition, and indicate problems not in Ferrante’s writing, but rather in its Italian readership. On this note, the essay You cannot be 'well read' without reading women by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett captures what Ferrante supporters hint to be an underlying issue in its criticism: “The fact remains that many men continue to be put off by a female name on a book cover {...} just look at the books of Elena Ferrante, one of the greatest novelists writing today,” alluding to the snubbing of the author’s story as tied to her presumed gender. (If anything, the battle surrounding Ferrante’s identity reinforces this gender bias: “Some who dismiss her writing as plot-driven and sentimental seem to accept that she is a woman. Others, noting an epic sweep of historical and political significance, attribute the works to a man,” writes Falkoff.)

The challenge of getting due recognition is not limited to today’s bestselling women authors, of course. Academics and feminist advocates alike have long been striving to give proper credit to the labors of women artists for centuries, work that has categorically been sectioned as their own genre or excluded from consideration among the literary and artistic “greats.”

Consider Florence, a city whose recent history speaks to the enduring effort to give visibility to forgotten female artists. The work of organizations such as the Advancing Women Artists Foundation, committed to uncovering the work Florence’s “invisible” talents, shed light on the wider cultural tendency to devalue female-authored works (Artemisia Gentileschi, anyone?). Though Ferrante’s case separates itself from what became an erasure of women’s work in the early modern era, her reception has shown that the hesitance in valuing female-authored stories is more relevant than ever. As the author herself writes, “In the great warehouse of the arts, set up mainly by men, women have for a relatively short time been seeking the means and opportunities to give a form of their own to what they have learned from life.”

Ferrante’s international TV debut is a clear indicator of her story’s weight. As Daish puts it, “Every so often, something comes along in Italian cinema or culture which has a great sense of reality, of the threats perhaps emerging in that time. Every so often, something comes along that simply moves us all a bit forward.”

 

 

The show will air on Rai 1 in Italy in November; specific dates and times are still forthcoming at publication of this article.

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