Ferrante Fever Review
If you’ve not heard the name Elena Ferrante, I can only assume you’ve been living under a literary rock for the past ten years. For me, her books came by word of mouth – a friend at work who couldn’t put down ‘My Brilliant Friend’ and urged me to read it as soon as possible. I did, and before long I understood why the world had gone crazy for Ferrante’s work. The story of Lenu (Elena) and Lila (Rafaella) was absorbing. It was a revolution to see women depicted in such a complex way and the experience of reading the Neapolitan novels is one which will stay with me forever.
It turns out that I am not alone. Ferrante Fever, a new film by Giacomo Durzi, documents the rise of Elena Ferrante through interviews with her transcriber, prominent authors, journalists and directors who have adapted her work. There’s one huge voice which is not heard (at least, not the real voice) throughout the film and that is Ferrante’s herself. She is famously anonymous – so much so that her anonymity has been the focus of many journalistic investigations in Italy, her identity speculated on perhaps more than her words. How then, does one make a film about such a prolific author without featuring them? Unlike Broomfield’s Tracking Down Maggie or Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie (both of which attempt to document the life of a public figure without access to them), Ferrante Fever settles instead to explore how and why her works have touched so many people.
The film opens with audio of Hilary Clinton talking about how deeply moved she was by the Neapolitan series. She’s not the only one. Durzi features interviews from many prominent literary figures to gush over their admiration for Ferrante’s work. Author Jonathan Franzen, journalist Roberto Saviano and many more wax lyrical about the effect Ferrante’s books have had on them as individuals and as professionals in the industry. The film does not have a definitive structure of any kind but somehow, this isn’t to its detriment. The interviews flow seamlessly from discussion on the Ferrante’s rise to prominence throughout the US, to the backlash from the Italian media, to the various adaptations of her work.
Though a great deal is made of the documentary not wanting to peek behind the curtain with regards to Ferrante’s identity, a significant amount of the film focuses on whether the lack of visible identity overshadows the work. There’s a unanimous agreement among those interviews that it categorically does not – the books speak for themselves – but since a great deal of time is devoted to this question, it almost feels like the anonymity question hovers longer than perhaps it should.
Ferrante Fever does struggle once it gets past the initial introduction. On one hand, it seems to be created to be received best by those who already love Ferrante and are familiar with her work. On the other, the film doesn’t seem keen to go into more depth about the themes in her novels, or to analyse further than making statements that they are about mothers or being a woman. These themes are obvious to anyone who has read even 30 pages of one of her books, and so it’s confusing as to why the film doesn’t dig deeper. It feels like Durzi hasn’t decided who this film is for therefore there is not enough new information for the fans but too much fan service for anyone else to engage. There is little information about how Ferrante got a publishing deal in the first place, and though every author admits jealousy over her non-attendance at PR events, there is no exploration of how she might have managed to assert herself this way.
Despite its flaws, if you are already in the cult of Ferrante, Ferrante Fever’s unabashed love of the author will leave you smiling. If you aren’t already captivated by her work, the film may not do a great deal for you. There’s something utterly joyful about the proclamations of genius within the film – it may not be perfect but it is a tender testament to a wonderful writer, whose prose is loved the world over.