Like the rest of us, Saverio Costanzo has never knowingly met Elena Ferrante, whose Neapolitan novels about a fictional Elena and her difficult, frightening, ferociously intelligent friend Lila were so successful when published in English that one of the great coinages of 2012 was “Ferrante fever”. Nevertheless, it was Ferrante who chose Costanzo to direct an eight-part adaptation of the first Neapolitan novel, My Brilliant Friend. At arm’s length, the-writer-who-is-Elena-Ferrante told Costanzo he had the job and HBO, which had commissioned the series with Italy’s RAI, that she would accept no one else.
“I try to answer the question ‘why me?’ but I cannot answer that question because I am not Elena Ferrante. I didn’t ask. I am afraid to go too close,” Costanzo says. He had directed four features, including Hungry Hearts with Adam Driver, along with the Italian version of In Treatment; he also had a history with Ferrante. In 2007, she gave him permission through her publishers to adapt her third novel, The Lost Child. He tried, but “couldn’t find the fil rouge”, as he puts it. So that was that. “And then, nine years later, she proposed me to do My Brilliant Friend.” He obeyed the call immediately. “I believe we share a kind of way of imagining.”
Elena and Lila meet as small children, playing in the courtyard of their decrepit block of flats in Naples. The year is 1950; the neighbourhood, run by a former black marketeer, smells of poverty and violence. Firebrand Lila and the more diffident, bookish Lenu decide together that they want to be writers, but their uneducated parents expect them to leave school at 12, work hard and marry local boys. And they do find boyfriends – in this, as in everything else, the two growing girls both collaborate and compete – but no relationship is as passionate or complex as the triad between Lila, Elena and books.
Unsurprisingly, given that Ferrante’s works had been lionised by a largely female readership, there was some consternation when it was announced that the series would be directed by a man. “As a man, it’s impossible for Costanzo to identify with Lila and Lenu’s struggles. Their story is distinctly female,” wrote Julie Kosin in Harper’s Bazaar. Even Jennifer Schuur, the executive producer of the series at HBO, admitted she was “curious” about Ferrante’s choice. “On the surface, you would not think that a male could necessarily understand, in a cellular way, the nuances of what Ferrante’s writing about in those books,” she said before filming began. At the same time, she knew he wanted “to be very careful with the gift he had been given”.
Costanzo brushes this aside. He set out his stall early, with his first statement about the project, when he said that “we can all identify with Lila and Elena and their desire to emancipate themselves”. Feminism doesn’t come into it. “It’s not about that actually,” he says. “What I like about Ferrante is that she is always dangerous. Perhaps the main character is female because she is female, but I see the focus of My Brilliant Friend as education. Emancipation means building with knowledge a solid soul more than a solid female soul.” Some of the male characters, he points out, manage to free themselves in the same way.
Ferrante’s earlier novels, beginning with Troubled Love in 1992, were certainly dangerous in the sense of disquieting; written in the visceral, direct language of horror, they were slender case studies of women’s lives embracing child abuse, divorce, motherhood, desire and a concomitant revulsion at the animal odours and labours of the female body. In The Lost Child – the book Costanzo optioned in 2007 – the academic narrator says an unborn child, “inhabits your belly, joyful and weighty, felt as a greedy impulse and yet repellent, like an insect’s poison injected into a vein”. Dangerous stuff, indeed.
In the ostensibly more benign Neapolitan novels, says Costanzo, the danger lies in Ferrante’s interrogation of friendship. The fictional Elena, aged 60, is telling us her story as an act of revenge. “I believe Elena Ferrante goes looking for the truth of human beings,” says Costanzo. “She is touching some taboo subjects. For example we all have a best enemy, a friend who is the love of our lives, the weight we carry, who helps us to become a better person but inside that, there is jealousy. But if you ask people at dinner ‘who is your best enemy?’ nobody will answer. I think that is why people empathise with the story, because it tells something you have inside but are afraid to admit. I believe that is the power of this writer.”
Both Ferrante and Costanzo wanted to avoid casting professional child actors. He held open auditions in Naples and saw more than 8000 girls to find two sets of Lila and Elena: Ludovica Nasti and Elisa Del Genio for the girls at primary school and Gaia Grace and Margherita Mazzucco playing them in their middle teens. “Everyone is very good at acting in Naples,” says Costanzo. “I think the reason is they have to defend themselves from a very violent city, to put on a mask and represent a character. But now it is in the DNA, I believe, because these four girls are not coming from bad neighbourhoods; they are not from Gomorrah type families, but they are very good at acting.” A dialect coach honed their accents and period slang. Even Ferrante, who had said previously that no real person could ever be quite the way one had imagined a character, said the young Lila was perfect.
There is no question HBO has a success on its hands, although Costanzo was wearily non-committal when asked at the Venice Film Festival if he would be taking on the three subsequent novels. Throughout writing and filming, he says, he consulted with Ferrante, took notes from her and sent her footage. It is clear that, at some level, he feels close to her. “But if you told me ‘oh, Elena Ferrante is in the other room’, I would not open the door,” he says. “Whatever I want to know about her is in her literature.” He starts to laugh, an infectious chuckle that seems to spring from nowhere. “Anyway,” he says, “I talk about her every day.”
WHAT My Brilliant Friend