‘Ferrante Fever’: Film Review

Giacomo Durzi’s documentary ‘Ferrante Fever’ examines the literary and popular success of the anonymous Italian novelist who goes by the name Elena Ferrante.

Nothing enhances an author’s reputation quite like reclusiveness. It certainly did wonders for J.D. Salinger, and now it’s reaping similar rewards for Elena Ferrante, the nom de plume of the unknown Italian writer responsible for the worldwide literary phenomenon the Neapolitan Quartet, including the novel My Brilliant Friend that was recently adapted for HBO. Giacomo Durzi’s aptly titled documentary Ferrante Fever delivers a fan-friendly examination of the novelist and her works, and what it lacks in depth it more than makes up for with enthusiasm.

The film begins with an audio clip of Hillary Clinton discussing her love of the books (which could explain her failure to win the presidential election as much as anything) and calling them as “hypnotic.” Similar testimonials follow, delivered by editors, journalists, authors and Ferrante’s English-language translator. Such terms describing her books as “pure addiction” are tossed off frequently.  

The Bottom Line

An unabashed love letter.

RELEASE DATE Mar 08, 2019

Among those singing the praises of Ferrante are authors Elizabeth Strout and Jonathan Franzen, the latter admitting his envy at Ferrante not having to participate in such rituals as attending “ghastly dinners” with publishers. He has no problem with Ferrante remaining anonymous: “She’s got a great voice, that’s enough for me,” he says effusively.

We also hear from Ferrante herself, in the form of excepts, read aloud by actress Anna Bonaiuto, from letters and interviews in which she discusses her desire to maintain her privacy and simply do her writing. Her refusal to play the publicity game certainly feels refreshing in this age of celebrity overexposure, even if it’s had the ironic effect of only increasing her prominence. She certainly displays no small amount of insight about her work, as illustrated in her incisive notes to the Italian director of the 1995 film Nasty Love, based on one of her earlier novels.

To its detriment, the documentary doesn’t delve deeply into the writer’s works, other than to make such obvious points as motherhood being a recurring theme. Instead, it concentrates on such brouhahas as Ferrante failing to win a prestigious Italian prize, with one of her competitors admitting that his country’s literary scene is “provincial.”

Ferrante Fever spends much time analyzing whether Ferrante hiding her identity is as much responsible for her success as her writing. The answer to the question is inconclusive, but the film clearly weighs heavily on the side of her talent. There are no dissenting viewpoints expressed, with the result that the proceedings have a distressing air of hagiography.

The series of pontificating talking heads eventually proves wearisome despite the doc’s brevity, with the occasional use of animation to dramatize scenes from the novels not proving particularly effective. More egregious are the repeated visuals of a shadowy female figure dressed in grey to represent the author, giving the film the feel of a tabloid television show.

Ferrante’s fans, and they are legion, will certainly embrace the doc for its championing of the author. The uninitiated will be left wondering what all the fuss is about.

Production companies: Malia, Rai Cinema
Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment
Director: Giacomo Durzi
Screenwriters: Giacomo Durzi, Laura Buffoni
Producers: Alessandra Acciai, Giorgio Magliulo, Roberto Lombardi
Director of photography: Beppe Gallo
Editors: Mirko Platania, Paola Freddi
Composers: Andrea Bergosio, Valentina Gaia

74 minutes