Elena Ferrante is like a Thomas Pynchon for East Coast book clubs. Her readers are deeply fascinated by her novels, even though they have no idea who she really is or what she looks like. That mystery is the sizzle used to sell the literary steak in Giacomo Durzi’s documentary Ferrante Fever, which opens tomorrow in New York.
Ferrante is having a bit of a moment these days. HBO has renewed their adaption of her so-called Neapolitan Novels for a second season and Film Movement has released a two-DVD set of Italian films based on her work. In 2016, Time magazine listed her as one of the “100 Most Influential” people of the year, but that seems like a questionable call, considering Ferrante has deliberately opted out of playing the role of public intellectual. Yet, in some ways, her anonymity has propelled her into the public consciousness.
Of course, for serious literary figures like Elizabeth Strout and Jonathan Franzen, Ferrante is all about the words on the printed page and any intrigue involving her secret identity is beside the point. They genuinely mean it, but that makes Durzi’s film a bit of a bait-and-switch, potentially luring viewers in with the Ferrante mystery, but spending most of its time on her language and themes.
As a result, Fever is very definitely a film for Ferrante fans. Indeed, there is a good deal of analysis of her use of Naples as a backdrop, but it rather dances around the city’s reputation as a Camorra stronghold, even though Gomorrah author Roberto Saviano is one of Durzi’s expert commentators. On the other hand, Franzen is almost too spot-on to discuss Ferrante’s aversion to publicity, given his well-documented kerfuffle with the Oprah Book Club.
That is all well and good, but neither Franzen or his colleagues really convey a sense to non-fans why they are so enthralled by Ferrante’s books. Yes, we understand they have a strong sense of place and ring with a voice of honesty, but there are a lot of books with literary merit out there. Most viewers will also be disappointed the film makes no attempt whatsoever to create some kind of possible profile for Ferrante. After all, part of the fascination is the unlikely possibility Ferrante is a schlubby dude that works as a janitor in Palermo, who is cat-fishing the Italian literary establishment.
It is nice to see a documentary that takes literature and book publishing so seriously, but the tone and depth of Fever is better suited for Europa Editions’ sales conference than a film to see in theaters. Since it never really lives up to its mysterious promise, Ferrante Fever is likely to disappoint when it opens tomorrow (3/8) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.