There are many of us, I imagine, who were harassed by some friend or another into reading the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante, starting with My Brilliant Friend, and left that tetralogy thunderstruck by the genius of what we’d read. I don’t speak Italian, but I can only guess that the translator Ann Goldstein is a genius herself, because what comes across in these books is the complicated flow of life itself, rendered in a way that is simultaneously simple and elaborate, and inarguably true. The only works of literature I’ve read that compare are Proust’s In Search of Lost Time series and the My Struggle books of Karl Ove Knausgard; stylistically, they are all different, but the startling clarity of reading them is one and the same; you feel as if you’ve unlocked a book that translates every fleeting thought and emotion you’ve ever experienced, and it doesn’t matter that you happen to be reading about a repressed Norwegian, or a rich Frenchman in fin-de-siecle France, or two poor Italian girls from the slums of Naples.
(Ferrante herself is anonymous, and after the explosion in popularity of her books in Italy and the rest of the western world, speculation ran rampant. Articles appeared across Italy using various methods to guess at her—or, in some theories, his—identity. I remember following these with interest, and I regret it now, because there is something ugly about the obsession and something lovely about the mystery.)
The challenge of translating Ferrante to a visual medium is one of preserving her voice while not becoming so reliant on the text to the point of boredom; my inexpert opinion is the achievement of that goal relies on a director with his or her own singular vision bring complementary to Ferrante’s unique tone. In Edoardo De Angelis, whose previous work I had never encountered, Netflix found the perfect match. The story here centers on Giovanna, the daughter of a professor and teacher in Naples who learns through overheard conversation about an aunt called Vittoria, considered a kind of monster by her parents. She seeks out this aunt, who still lives on the poor side of Naples, and immediately falls into the rhythms of her chaotic, passionate life. I could go on about the plot that unfolds over the show’s six episodes, but to me it’s almost irrelevant—this is a family drama, and any televised family drama is only as good as the acting and directing, with the story itself following their lead. In other words, the story is good and compelling, but what actually matters is that it’s lifted into the stratosphere by the production, just as Ferrante’s writing and characterization elevate into high art plots that could be found in any soap opera.
There isn’t a bad casting choice to be found here, but Valeria Golino as Vittoria is somewhere beyond unforgettable, capturing all the energy and intrigue and ardor of a fundamentally singular character. Giovanna’s father is afraid that Vittoria will lead his daughter astray, but the truth is that she is opening her eyes to a kind of freedom she had always craved without being able to name it. As in all of Ferrante’s work, class underlies everything, but the direction here is changed—while the Neapolitan novels hinge on the rise to a middle class life, this is about a cloistered girl who practices breakdancing in her room suddenly emerging into a vibrant world, which happens to be on a lower socioeconomic stratum. To some extent, Giovanna feels an immediate sense of belonging here, as though she can sense her father’s origins and consciously seeks them out.
At every step of the way, De Angelis guides us with an expert hand, injecting enough abstraction and tangential elements to give the show its own distinctive style that ends up feeling so much like Ferrante. Translations have been a key part of the growing Ferrante legend, and the one that this director pulls off is one of the best to date. (Here, I must mention the sublime use of music: from the Italian pop singer Peppino di Capri to Rod Stewart to Ace of Base, the choices are continually surprising and continually perfect. The closest comparison I can come up with is the film Call Me By Your Name, and I’d be hard-pressed, beyond “a feeling,” to explain why it felt so similar.)
The Lying Life of Adults is, in short, a mature, beautiful work of art, and the biggest surprise for me is that it turned up on Netflix. The streaming service has become the home of safe plays, of mediocre algorithm-friendly productions, and to see something so profound is like finding a Monet in a Ripley’s museum. Perhaps it has something to do with being greenlit in 2020, when priorities were different, and indeed today it feels like there is very little being to promote it in the U.S. (For the first time ever in my experience with Netflix, nobody responded to an email seeking screeners, which is why this review is running two days after the release date.) A subtitled series with a certain amount of sophistication is bound to be under-appreciated, but there is something especially sad about watching the rollout here, and realizing how small an impact it will make.
But that, as they say, is none of our business, and if you happen to be reading this, and happen to be a fan of Ferrante’s, you will be overjoyed to be one of those who discovered it in the shadows. As coming-of-age stories go, Ferrante is one of the greatest storytellers ever to live, and this adaptation doesn’t just succeed on its own merits, but on hers as well.
The Lying Life of Adults is now streaming on Netflix.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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