The Guardian: From Fellini to Ferrante: the cinematic vision of My Brilliant Friend

The television adaptation Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is a reminder of Italy’s strong tradition in the coming-of-age genre, from Life Is Beautiful to Cinema Paradiso

On The Guardian

Tobias Jones – Nov 19, 2018

The first episode of My Brilliant Friend is likely to cause both great excitement and deep anxiety. Excitement because Ferrante is a writer with an almost evangelical following. Her quartet of “Neapolitan novels” have sold close to a million copies in the UK, and 1.8m in Italy. When readers finish one book, they tend to devour all four, mesmerised by the taut depiction of a poor suburb and its characters over the course of many decades. But that invented world of a few families living cheek-by-jowl in postwar Italy is both exotically foreign and yet – with its universal themes of poverty, violence, alliances and aspiration – astonishingly familiar. The anxiety arises because the adaptation might erase not only how we’ve imagined the characters, but also their world.

Elisabetta Salvini, a feminist historian at the University of Parma, says that Ferrante “knows how to use perfectly the history of our country, weaving it into the depth and complexity of her characters.” For Adalgisa Giorgio, herself Neapolitan and a senior lecturer in Italian studies at the University of Bath, the friendship depicted in the books “is full of conflict and confrontation, but it’s the basis of their resistance to a world which tries to erase them.”

Yet, while Ferrante has become a subject of university study in the UK, there’s more reticence, even snootiness, about her in Italian academic circles. Here, realist plots are often less valued than experimental, highbrow works and some intellectuals sense something soap opera-ish about Ferrante. One Italian literary critic, Stefano Jossa, wrote a polemic recently under the provocative headline: “Ferrante shouldn’t be studied at university”. If she’s going to be studied, he wrote, it should be to analyse and deconstruct the mythography, not to add to it.

So for all those reasons there’s huge anticipation surrounding this adaptation. Ferrante herself was a script adviser and the director Saverio Costanzo said recently that working with the famous recluse was like “working with a ghost”. But Costanzo probably felt he was working with many other ghosts beyond Ferrante, because the artistic ancestors of this production are the country’s great neorealist directors: De Sica, Visconti, Rossellini and Fellini. Like them, Costanzo has cast many non-professional actors and sought to portray the rawness of the postwar period with all its destitution and opportunities, with its clash of ancient and modern. There are dusty fields, abandoned buildings, stray dogs, goatherds and only one or two cars. The Neapolitan dialect is so thick that there are subtitles even for Italians.

But those neorealist directors were invariably portraying and interpreting their own present, whereas this adaptation is a costume drama. The set was built from scratch and it appears strangely spacious and – a word one would never normally associate with Naples – neat. The city is noisy, frenetic, creative and soiled, so the bare set is unsettling, but that was precisely Costanzo’s intention: “A reconstructed set,” he told me, “creates disorientation in the spectator.”

Read more