It's generally accepted that, in order to achieve fame and fortune, one must be prepared to sell one's soul. But Elena Ferrante did it without giving up so much as her name.
In less than a decade, the anonymous Italian author has become a global phenomenon, with her four-part "Neapolitan" novel series ensnaring millions of readers in their decades-spanning, emotionally raw chronicle of a female friendship. Ferrante has become literary royalty in spite, or perhaps because, of her steadfast refusal to identify herself to the public. As one subject in the Italian documentary Ferrante Fever notes, it's the purest possible form of letting the work speak for itself.
The natural problem for anybody making a film on Ferrante, then, is: How do you tell a compelling story about an invisible person? To its credit, Ferrante Fever knows there are certain things it cannot do. Writer-director Giacomo Durzi doesn't try to unmask Ferrante's identity. He doesn't indulge a 2016 investigation that purported to out her. His interview subjects, almost all from the publishing world, won't speculate any biographical details — in fact, they pointedly refuse. They do, however, freely speculate as to whether there will be a fifth Neapolitan book. (Jonathan Franzen thinks yes.)
This is charming, in its way, and a marked contrast from a film like 2013's Salinger, which worked itself into a hysteria trying to dig up dirt on J.D. Salinger. That film's director, Shane Salerno, had assumed that anyone who loved a reclusive author as much as he did would be grateful for any new tidbits of information, no matter how icky. Durzi takes the opposite view. To truly love a private person, his film argues, means to preserve only the side of her that she wants to show you.
So, what's left? A 75-minute love letter to Ferrante: A mix of fawning on-camera tributes and clips from two previous films based on her books. It's pure candy for the fans, and a way to placate them in-between seasons of the My Brilliant Friend HBO series. The film is produced by Rai, the Italian TV network that's also co-producing the show. But the film was completed in 2017 and is only just now making a stateside theatrical run, so there's no sign of the adaptation here: just a lot of abstract, animated interludes, with selections from Ferrante's sort-of memoir Fragments serving as narration.
Ferrante Fever is mostly concerned with how the author found success in the English-speaking world. Opening with a podcast clip of Hillary Clinton gushing over the books' "hypnotic" power, the film then jumps around the New York literary stratosphere to hear testimonies from Ferrante's publisher, translator, and vendors. Big fans abound, like Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, and authors like Franzen and Elizabeth Strout, both of whom long to disappear under the veil of anonymity themselves. Some Italians appear, too, including an author to whom Ferrante once lost a prestigious national literary prize. (Footage from the awards ceremony is really something: four male finalists and the ghost of the only woman.)
But there's almost no narrative structure, which is not the sort of thing you want to say about anything associated with the biggest name in modern fiction. The talking heads offer precise analysis of Ferrante's work — the relationships between her characters, the neologisms she invented — without any larger context.
How, for example, did she develop her relationship with U.S. specialty bookseller Europa Editions, which had never published anything before her 2005 novel Days of Abandonment? How is it that she manages to make internal monologue the most engrossing thing in the world, when this kind of extreme self-reflection seems to be the bane of every other novelist who dares to try? And what does Italy's relatively muted reaction to her success say about the country's perception of her work, or of American tendencies to embrace exotic locales like the Naples of her novels?
The film's reluctance to dig into any side of Ferrante not currently visible to the public is unfortunate. But it's also in keeping with the way the English-speaking world tends to discuss her work: as though giving her the slightest bit of real-world context will shatter her mystique and render her powerless. In Ferrante Fever, this translates into an unwillingness to say much of anything substantive about her, beyond the self-evident fact that she is a great writer. For the truly curious literati, digging a bit deeper into such a striking talent wouldn't cure our Ferrante fever. It would help the contagion spread.