By JASON HOROWITZ
MAY 18, 2017
NAPLES, Italy — A legion of children raced up a dead-end street in Sanità, a tough Naples neighborhood dripping with laundry and suddenly brimming with the promise of stardom.
Marta Reale, 10, her smile broad, her bangs blanched, made her way to a recreation center’s doorway through the dense crowd of other children, sunlit cigarette smoke and mothers fanning themselves on the seats of scooters. Above her, more children were hanging out the window, and above them, more were crammed onto a balcony.
Then she approached the desk where she gave her name and age and got a numbered slip of paper and a parental release form. The sign above her head read, “Dream.”
This was not just any casting call, but one for “My Brilliant Friend,” an adaptation of the first of the four smash-hit Neapolitan Novels written by Elena Ferrante, whose hidden identity enthralled the literary world and whose books have sold more than a million copies.
HBO and the Italian state broadcaster RAI caught the Ferrante Fever and are producing an eight-episode mini-series inspired by that first book, introducing international viewers to the complicated relationship of two remarkably gifted girls, Lila (“that terrible, dazzling girl”) and Lenú (“I liked pleasing everyone”), as they grow up and apart in a violent, vivid Naples neighborhood in the lean postwar years.
It is a major production, with hotshot producers, a celebrated director and screenwriting and set designing assists from the author. (“We talk by email,” said the director, Saverio Costanzo. “Dear Saverio. Dear Elena.”)
In a throwback effort at authenticity, producers are looking for amateur child actors — two sets of girls in 8- and 15-year-old iterations, and then a large “Annie”-esque supporting cast of hard-knock lifers.
The result is an open casting call that has already drawn 5,000 children, the vast majority of whom have never heard of Elena Ferrante, and injected a mix of hysteria and hope into parts of Naples that are poor in resources but rich in real characters.
“Everybody knows how to act in Naples,” said Mr. Costanzo. “They have to act to defend themselves. Everybody has a role that they play.”
Or, as Dora Cardamone, 43, put it as she waited for her two auditioning daughters, “acting is in the Naples blood.”
Ms. Cardamone’s daughters lined up upstairs with 10 other children against a peppermint striped wall, all of them holding papers bearing their names.
As an assistant took all their pictures, Laura Muccino, the casting director, gently explained that “in this moment, we are looking for very specific characteristics,” and that the children should not despair if they weren’t set aside for a quick interview in an adjacent room.
When the assistant approached Ms. Cardamone’s daughter Maria Rosaria, 13, who had the words “Mom” and “Dad” tattooed below her calves, the girl turned sideways as if posing for a mug shot. She made the cut.
She entered a smaller room and looked apprehensively at the digital video camera between Mr. Costanzo, who was looking for “sad eyes, something like a calm inside,” and Ms. Muccino, who sought to avoid the now-common Naples rotundness and find postwar hunger and “something a little bit broken.”
“Do you get along with your sister?” Ms. Muccino asked.
“No,” Maria Rosaria answered.
“Why?” she asked.
“She disrespects me,” Maria Rosaria said. “She makes fun of me.”
“Why?” Mr. Costanzo asked.
“Because she is prettier than me,” she said. “So I beat her.”
Hits, smacks and punches came up over and over again. And while there is a heavy dose of domestic violence in the Ferrante books, the standard-bearer for Naples brutality remains “Gomorrah,” a movie and then a popular television show, itself adapted from a blockbuster book about the Camorra mob and the city’s terrifying slums. “Gomorrah” has many fans in Sanità and around the world, but not in Naples City Hall.
The mayor of Naples, Luigi de Magistris, whose progress in cleaning up the city — both its garbage and its crime — has helped turn it into a cinematic capital of Italy, lamented the violent depictions of “Gomorrah,” but said it had at least lowered expectations for visitors fearing the worst.
“If you are expecting the inferno, purgatory becomes like paradise,” he said. By contrast, he said the “My Brilliant Friend” production represented a “huge opportunity for the city,” as both a financial investment and an image enhancer.
With only months before filming starts, the project’s producers — Lorenzo Mieli of Wildside and Domenico Procacci of Fandango — were eager to find the show’s stars.
“Anxiety, yes. Desperation, not yet,” Mr. Procacci said (with a hint of desperation).
After her interview, and still a long way from a role in the production, Maria Rosaria bounded out, boasting: “I won the part. I’ll get on television.”
Her neighbor Enzo Valinotti — a 57-year-old shoemaker who reminisced about the days, nearly a century ago, when Totò, one of Italy’s most iconic actors, lived in the neighborhood — leaned out his ground-floor window and said of the children flooding the street, “They are all so happy.”
Not all of them, though.
A quick brush with show business reduced one boy to tears. “They didn’t interview me,” he whimpered as neighborhood women swooped in to console him.
“Amore, amore,” they said, “they are going into all the schools of Naples. If they interviewed everyone it would take forever.”
Some mothers appreciated that the audition got their children off the streets for an afternoon and gave them something to remember. Others dreamed big.
“Look at my son. He is so beautiful,” said Anna Arrivolo, 43, who grabbed her child’s pudgy face and stroked his gelled hair. “He didn’t want to do it. I wanted him to.”
(“You know ‘Bellissima’?” Mr. Costanzo said, referring to Luchino Visconti’s classic film about a striving stage mother who does everything to get her daughter into the movies. “This is a bit like that.”)
More time passed and more children auditioned. Under a sign that read “Beauty,” Marta had made it up into the stairwell, where she interrogated the other children walking down. “Oh, Francesco! What happened inside?” she asked a boy, who smiled and said, “Nothing, just an interview.”
Rumors spread (“They chose Benedetta!”) and none of them noticed when Mr. Costanzo’s girlfriend, the acclaimed Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher, walked past in a long yellow skirt.
A member of the production team declared, “Silenzio!” and then called the next 10 numbers up.
“Guys, good luck!” Marta shouted. Then she grabbed her friend Fabiana Colantonio, 9, looked up at the ceiling and implored, “Jesus, let them pick me.”
A few minutes later, the two girls lined up with the others, standing shoulder to shoulder, reminiscent of Lila and Lenù in the book. Mr. Costanza and Ms. Muccino again conferred in whispers.
Ms. Muccino then walked over to the line and tapped Fabiana on the shoulder, but not Marta, who first looked confused, then swallowed hard.
At 6:30 in the evening, the production team called it quits. While he didn’t find any candidates for his female leads, Mr. Costanzo said he had seen some of the mournful eyes that he hoped would “build the soul” of the imaginary neighborhood he intended to create.
As he, his crew and his girlfriend left the building and walked off the street, Fabiana Scasserra, 9, stood on the ground-floor porch opposite the center and watched them go. She had long, dark hair, wiry limbs and big, watchful eyes.