Ferrante Fever is a documentary exploring the cultural phenomenon and world-wide appeal of novelist Elena Ferrante. The film features a whole secchio (bucket, to you) load of authors discussing the Ferrante craze. We went even better! Ahead of her special presentation of the film at the Exeter Phoenix, we got in touch with Dr Alessia Risi, Lecturer in Italian at Exeter University to find out what makes the author – and the film – so appealing.
D&CFilm: What is it about the Ferrante stories that makes them so compelling?
Alessia Risi: While reading Elena Ferrante’s stories, the sensation is to be reading something that concerns us, that is speaking of us and not simply to us. I strongly agree with this consideration expressed by director Mario Martone (L’amore molesto/Nasty Love, 1995) in the Ferrante Fever documentary (Giacomo Durzi, 2017) and I believe that this aspect is ultimately what brought together such a deeply diverse worldwide readership to experience the same “Ferrante fever”, namely that unrelenting addiction to the reading of My Brilliant Friend’s four volumes that so many of Ferrante’s readers have admitted to having suffered from.
In other words, what makes Ferrante’s stories so compelling is her ability to respond to the general (recently rediscovered) need for (epic) storytelling, but also to make it personal and push her readers to deal with a number of uneasy emotions, drives or thoughts that often, in life, remain unsaid and not reflected upon.
As Ferrante herself states: “I renounce nothing that can give pleasure to the reader, not even what is considered old, trite, vulgar. I use all the strategies I know to capture the reader’s attention, stimulate curiosity, make the page as dense as possible, and easy as possible to turn it.” (Frantumaglia, 2016).
In addition to this, of course, the author’s (and her publishing house’s) decision to serialise My Brilliant friend into four books/episodes, therefore moving the literary structure of the saga back to the model of the roman feuilleton and forward towards the format of the TV series, also contributed to the spread of ‘Ferrante fever’.
D&CFilm: Where does Ferrante sit in Italian literature, in terms of themes and style?
Alessia Risi: Ferrante’s narratives mainly (but not solely) explore themes immediately linked to female subjectivities, such as female self-awareness and empowerment, the relationship between mothers and daughters, and of course female friendship, which Ferrante investigates in an original and perhaps unprecedented way – for example outside the cage of the stereotyped component of the love triangle, in which two female characters’ interests and interactions would only revolve around a male figure.
In terms of style, after having already proved herself an experimental and refined writer in her first three novels, in the My Brilliant Friend saga Ferrante adopts and applies “bold” formal choices which complicate her tetralogy’s narrative development by inserting elements borrowed from popular fiction and culture into a more complex structure.
Such a strategic choice led some critics to refer to Ferrante’s work as a purely commercial enterprise and to label it as ‘romance’ in the belittling sense of ‘chick-lit’. Mainly due to Ferrante’s constant building on themes such as love, overwhelming passions, secrets, and social conflicts, as well as her frequent references to popular novels (from Alcott’s Little Women, to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, to fotonovelas), such perceptions originate from a restricted and superficial analysis of the use of such elements in the tetralogy, which reveals the persistence of dated prejudices towards what in Italy used to be referred to derogatorily as paraletteratura (paraliterature). In reality, throughout her saga Ferrante demonstrates an ability to get to the bottom of things and feelings, to dig into the unspoken, and at times into what seems unsayable.
D&CFilm: A quick look down the list of Strega winners, which Ferrante was shortlisted for but never won, doesn’t show many women writers – is there a problem in Italy with women writers?
Alessia Risi: While I believe that there is a worldwide problem with women writers’ visibility and recognition, as well as their ghettoization within Literature, which is too often considered male terrain, yes, it can be said that Italy definitely has one.
In 70 years of the Strega Prize – which is one of the most prestigious literary prizes in Italy – only eleven times has the award been won by women. The last, Helena Janeczek, in 2018 with La ragazza con la Leica (The Girl with the Leica), won the prize after a gap of fifteen years. It is worth noting that Ferrante had already been nominated for the Strega prize for her debut novel L’amore molesto (Troubling Love) in 1995, however, differently from what happened for her nomination in 2015, at the time her decision to use a pseudonym was not subjected to the same obsessive media attention and attendant widespread acrimony from Italian literary critics.
D&CFilm: Also the unearthing of the true identity of the writer has been criticised as being sexist – is that fair and in your opinion is it important to know the identity?
Alessia Risi: I do believe that the media fixation about Ferrante’s real identity has been a pointless harassment towards somebody who is or chose to be a woman, and who repeatedly and clearly declared herself unwilling to reveal her real name. Especially in Italy, this persistent gossip-driven journalism has repeatedly and obsessively led to various witch hunts against Ferrante, possibly reaching its lowest point with the “investigation” published by Italian journalist Claudio Gatti in the newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore on 2 October 2016. In his search for the “truth”, Gatti undertook an intrusive financial inquiry into the private bank account of the person whom he then claimed to have ‘unmasked’ as Ferrante, referring to her as if she were some tax-evading criminal. Such a “journalistic investigation” has been strongly and rightly criticised as sexist by a number of other journalists and critics, such as Katherine Angel and Jeanette Winterson.
D&CFilm: What is the allure of a documentary about someone we don’t know and is film the best way to explore our relationship with a writer?
Alessia Risi: I think a documentary can be a good first step to discover a new writer, but of course reading her/his books remains the best way to be actually able to hear the writer’s voice.
In the case of Ferrante Fever, perhaps one limit of the documentary is that of not having given more space to Ferrante’s words and thoughts. Through actor Anna Bonaiuto’s voice-over, we hear a few excerpts from the Italian version of Frantumaglia. A Writer’s Journey (2016) – which is a collection of Ferrante’s reflections, letters and released interviews, but I do feel that there could have been more as these glimpses of Ferrante’s thoughts on writing and on the type of relationship she aims to build with her readership represent some of the most enjoyable moments of the documentary. Likewise, it would have also been interesting to hear about some “ordinary” readers’ appraisals of My Brilliant Friend along with those of professionals and/or other famous writers.
D&CFilm: For adaptations to movies there’s a common feeling that the book is better than the film. But sometimes the film is better than the book. What do you think and, if possible, could you give an example of each?
Alessia Risi: In general, I believe that it is simplistic to make clear distinctions between the two media in terms of what is better or worse. Books and films are, by their very nature, two different ways of telling stories that respond to different criteria, switching from a telling mode to a showing mode. However, to my mind, an example of a good book that resulted in a poorer cinematographic version is Quo Vadis, Baby? (2004) by Italian writer Grazia Verasani, which in Gabriele Salvatores’ film adaptation shows a loss in the complexity of the characters at play, resulting in a gallery of stereotyped (female) figures. On the other hand, I believe that the effectiveness of a crucial book such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is, if anything, enhanced in the first season of the eponymous HBO series (2017).
D&CFilm: Grazie Alessia!
Ferrante Fever with a special introduction by Dr Alessia Risi, presented in partnership with the Italian Cultural Association is at the Exeter Phoenix on Sunday, September 29. Check out the times and get your tickets.