Bildungsroman becomes binge-worthy television series

Written by Maricke Nieuwdorp

Who would want to direct an adaptation of Elena Ferrante's universally beloved bildungsroman My Brilliant Friend? An Italian filmmaker took the challenge. Saverio Constanzo (The Solitude of Prime Numbers) directed L'amica geniale (My Brilliant Friend) as an 8-part television series, which will be screened at the IFFR on Thursday 31 January 2019.

In L'amica geniale (My Brilliant Friend) two Neapolitan schoolgirls become friends in the post-war Luzzatti district. Growing up in a poor, close-knit, patriarchal environment, these two intelligent friends hope to flee the neighbourhood and the narrowly-defined lives of women there. The modest Elena 'Lenù' Greco is allowed to study and explore her boundaries outside the neighbourhood. The beautiful, brilliant Raffaella 'Lila' Cerullo has to work in her father's business. She tries in her own way, within the community framework, to broaden her horizons.

After the publication of the novel My Brilliant Friend in 2011, the lives of these characters began to lead a visual life of their own in the minds of readers. How do you ensure your adaptation does not jar with the imaginations of the book’s fans? Saverio Constanzo, in conversation with the NPO, explains: “We owe much to Elena Ferrante herself. The actresses have done a thorough job, but they have stepped into the comfortable, sensible shoes that Ferrante made for them. The characters were already coherent, developed and surprising.” He praised the writer's knowledge of cinematic language: “It surprised me how Ferrante managed to put all those cinematic scenes into the book.” Elena Ferrante, who publishes under a pseudonym, also worked on the screenplay. Still, she remained a mystery to Constanzo, he recently told Dutch daily newspaper Trouw. The two communicated solely by email.

The most important thing is that you can transfer the emotion you had when you read the book.” – Saverio Constanzo

That he was a big fan of Ferrante's four 'Neapolitan novels' about a complex women's friendship that spans over 50 years, helped enormously. “The most important thing is that you can transfer the emotion you had when you read the book”, says Constanzo. He thinks that Ferrante is very knowledgeable and honest on the theme of friendship. Even about its less beautiful aspects: “Friendship is about love, but also about competition and feeling jealousy for someone you love so much.”

To find a credible match for the protagonists, he cast his four young actresses from some 9,000 candidates: Lenù as a child (Elisa del Genio), Lenù as a teenager (Margherita Mazzucco), Lila as a child (Ludovica Nasti) and Lila as a teenager (Gaia Girace). It turns out a great deal of work went into building a complete neighbourhood to serve as a set. Constanzo: “I believed more in a fantasy city than in a real city for what I wanted to convey. If you work in a devised city, the viewer can master the film.” The Luzzatti district looks very different in 2019. Constanzo: “Luzzatti in Naples was ruined by illegal buildings, interference from the Camorra (Italian criminal organisation, also portrayed in film and series Gomorra- IFFR)and concrete decks during in the 1970s and 1980s as were many other Italian and particularly Neapolitan neighbourhoods. Luzzatti started out as a new neighbourhood in no-man’s-land. It was a close-knit community that went through ups and downs together. Now, just like all small communities, Luzzatti has been flooded and lost in the big picture.”

L'amica geniale finds its home on a small screen, but it is an honour for me to share this series on a large screen.” – Saverio Constanzo

Although L'amica geniale was produced by television channels Rai 1 and HBO, Constanzo thinks it is fantastic that the series can also be seen on the big screen. Last summer, when the first two parts were shown during the Venice Film Festival, he said: “I am a film fan and share a passion for film with festivalgoers. L'amica geniale finds its home on a small screen, but it is an honour for me to share this series on a large screen.”

There are three seasons set to follow and Constanzo is already working on season two, the filming of Elena Ferrante's The Story of a New Name.

Marathon screening of My Brilliant Friend - Saverio Constanzo. LantarenVenster, 10.00-19.57. The series can be seen from 8 February 2019 onwards on NPO 2 at 22:55. From 1 February 2019 onwards, the entire series will also be available on NPO Start Plus.

Photo in header: Saverio Costanzo