The world’s most secretive author, Elena Ferrante, kept herself busy during lockdown, returning to the story of her most famous protagonists, Lila and Elena.
As Italy stayed at home to keep coronavirus at bay, the Italian novelist got to work reviewing the TV script for the third book in her bestselling Neapolitan quartet of novels. The clock is ticking, claims Saverio Costanzo, the TV director who wrote the first draft of the script and has to communicate by email with Ferrante, who guards her true identity and writes under a pen name. “Filming will start in October and the plan is to broadcast it in October 2021, but the lockdown has held things up and time is tight,” he says. “Add to that the large number of safety rules we will have during filming, which will be difficult to follow.”
He knows everything has to be perfect to live up to the expectations of the legions of fans of Ferrante’s tales of Lila and Elena, childhood friends surviving in the backstreets of Naples. Costanzo, 44, the director of the 2010 Italian film The Solitude of Primary Numbers, was picked by Ferrante and has won plaudits for his direction of the first series, based on My Brilliant Friend, the first novel in the quartet, in which Elena narrates the tale of her relationship with the impulsive, enigmatic and fiercely intelligent Lila in the 1950s.
The filming of the second book, The Story of a New Name, in which Lila drops out of school to start married life and Elena climbs the social ladder by sticking with high school, was completed before lockdown and has arrived on TV screens. Along the way, despite the physical distance that Ferrante keeps between herself and Costanzo, the two broke the ice.
“At a press conference I joked her emails were always serious and our exchanges were very 19th-century, a bit like Dostoevsky,” he says. Ferrante was keeping things formal by using “lei”, the formal way to address people in Italian, rather than the more familiar “tu”. “She must have heard this because when we started work on the second series she wrote, ‘You’re right, that’s enough, let’s switch to tu,’ ” he recalls.
Yet their relationship went little farther. During lockdown, when we were all gazing into each other’s homes on Zoom and publishing our baking recipes, Ferrante remained defiantly anonymous. “For me this is still the chronicle of a relationship with a ghost,” Costanzo says.
The second series takes viewers into the 1960s as Lila and her husband, Stefano Carracci, move into an airy, formica-filled apartment, light years from the cramped, dark flats of My Brilliant Friend. “This is Lila and Elena’s story, but the story of Italy is also playing out. The 1960s are exploding and there is the new desire for consumerism,” Costanzo says.
Some things never change, however, starting with the toxic male chauvinism rife in their Naples neighbourhood. As Lila is raped and beaten by Stefano on their honeymoon, Elena is swooning at school over Nino, the articulate intellectual, only to discover that he is as slippery as the other local men. Lila’s mother best sums up the way women are expected to tolerate male behaviour when she says: “Life is like this, sometimes you get a kiss, other times a beating.”
That is why Costanzo claims that the key episodes in the series are when the girls retreat to the beach on the island of Ischia and get a rare chance to soak up the sun. “It’s the heart of the series and the happiest moment in all the books, when we understand the meaning of freedom, when Lila and Elena can slip out of the role of women and become girls again,” he says. “Ferrante is building a sophisticated story that takes flight in the simplest moments.”
Gaia Girace, a schoolgirl with no professional acting experience who was 16 when she played Lila in the second series, brilliantly conveys the anger and pride simmering in her character, no more so than when she meets Elena’s new middle-class high-school friends. The scene crackles with tension, and on the way home her mockery of Elena’s new intellectual milieu is devastating. “She improvised a series of hand gestures that gave rhythm to her insults,” Costanzo says. “When I first saw her audition she was 13, and I could see she had a kind of magnetism — she is an actor despite herself, with a natural talent that goes so deep she doesn’t know where it ends.”
It is a moment to relish Girace’s dark-eyed stares and insults in the Neapolitan dialect because she may not be around for the third series.
The key episodes in the series are when the girls retreat to the beach on the island of Ischia and get a rare chance to soak up the sun.
“Lila will be 33 by the end of the third series and we may have to swap Gaia and Margherita Mazzucco, who plays Elena, for new actresses. It’s all to be decided,” Costanzo says. Until then, Girace gets to use her charisma to keep the unscrupulous, pushy, wheeler-dealing Solara brothers in check as they throw their weight around the neighbourhood on their way to becoming full-time gangsters in the Naples Camorra mafia.
Seeing the brothers as youngsters affords a snapshot of the formative years of the type of tough guy who would grow up to wage violent mafia wars in Naples in the 1980s.
It is a world closely linked to Costanzo’s youth. When he was 17 in 1993, his father, the well-known TV talk show host Maurizio Costanzo, came to the attention of Sicily’s Cosa Nostra mafia after he denounced them on air. A hit squad travelled to Rome to blow up his car, but botched the attack, destroying six parked cars and damaging 60 others while he escaped. “Everyone in Italy, regardless of their personal involvement with the mafia, knows that culture and knows how there is a kind of mafia behaviour that can be found in people who aren’t necessarily in the mafia,” Costanzo says.
The Solaras’ menace will grow in the third book as Naples enters the 1970s, while Elena becomes an exponent of the rising feminism challenging Italy’s male-dominated society at the time. Stuck at home during lockdown, Costanza spent hours immersed in the book and found himself transported back to the 1970s as he wrote the first draft of the script for the third series before handing it over to Ferrante for her scrutiny.
“Working in lockdown was like working in a dream, being conscious while asleep, and for me it was a voyage back to the Seventies. I watched films like Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now and realised how claustrophobic they were, how they take place inside the characters’ heads. In Italy the Seventies were also dark years of terrorism, when going outside was dangerous. In short, the decade had a lot in common with lockdown.”
Ferrante started reviewing Costanzo’s work on the script and he said that their teamwork was working. “At the start she was more prudent, and then as she was pleased with the adaptations she became more relaxed and we know each other by now,” Costanzo says. “She is never defensive or possessive about her books. Her notes are never egocentric.”
Ferrante’s next book, he adds, should be about Italy’s strange weeks of lockdown. “She would be perfect to write about that. But I have no idea how she spent lockdown — we are not that close.”
All episodes of My Brilliant Friend are available now on Sky Atlantic, Now TV, and HBO