Film Movement Blu-ray Review: Elena Ferrante on Film - The Days of Abandonment (2005) & Troubling Love (1995)

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In anticipation of HBO's upcoming miniseries adaptation of Elena Ferrante's internationally bestselling novel, My Brilliant Friend, Film Movement has put together a lavish box set featuring vibrant transfers of the only two films ever adapted from the pseudonymous author's novels as well as a collectible thirty-two page booklet of correspondence, interview excerpts, and lush photos. Curated in reverse chronological order across the two-disc set, I traveled to Ferrante's Naples through my Blu-ray player to learn more.

The Days Of Abandonment (2005) 
AKA: I giorni dell'abbandono

From an eerie opening sequence which informs us that – especially in Roberto Faenza's film – we can't always believe what we see to an early line of dialogue where our protagonist Olga (Margherita Buy) describes the tawdry book she's translating to a friend which serves as a gender flipped foreshadowing of events to come, symbolism is everywhere in this over-the-top adaptation of Elena Ferrante's novel.

An initially intriguing spin on Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, among other classic works centered on women whose love lives threaten to be their undoing, shortly into Days the seemingly happily married Olga finds herself in the titular hell of abandonment after her husband announces that he's unhappy and walks out on his wife and two children.

Numbed by disbelief, Olga goes through all five stages of grief before she eventually loses a grip on both reality and her sanity with the discovery that her husband Mario (Inspector Montalbano's Luca Zingaretti) didn't just have an existential crisis but a classic midlife one, trading his educated elegant wife in for an eighteen-year-old he'd already begun molding as her tutor.

As Olga's internal struggles become external, her luck goes from bad to worse. Taking on an allegorical Book of Job like quality, soon phones that connect her to the outside world break and a lizard as well as ants enter to her apartment, which causes her to go to extremes in order to protect her children. Giving in to the depression by staying inside her apartment, eventually things get so out of hand that the home she considers her sanctuary literally traps her inside.

Discarding supporting characters and ideas introduced only moments earlier in favor of increasingly outrageous sequences that must've worked better on the page, Days, which is credited to seven screenwriters on IMDb, reinforces the long-held belief that the internationally beloved, bestselling pseudonymous Italian author’s ouevre is nearly incapable of being adapted successfully.

Embracing wild moments of Magical Realism that distract from the film as a whole, as Olga's growing desperation and near psychosis after being jilted forces her to lash out at Mario and his girlfriend, Days comes across as disturbingly anti-feminist rather than humanist on the screen.

Pulling us in a myriad of directions, as noted in the thirty-two page booklet of letters and interview excerpts included in the double-disc set, out of a handful of characters to focus on, curiously the one in particular that Faenza set out to humanize from his aloof literary incarnation was Mario.

Yes, empathy is always important especially when dealing with an emotionally fraught subject in such a psychologically driven work with shades of Roman Polanski's Repulsion throughout. However, humanizing Mario more than Olga has the (hopefully) unintended side effect of pushing the characters of the husband and wife to even greater extremes by highlighting sexist stereotypes about "hysterical" women and strong men.

And rather than provide a balance between the two personalities, as she chases after her husband in a car or rips the earrings off of Mario's girlfriend in the street, Days transforms Olga into a clich├ęd Fatal Attraction-esque tormentor victimizing Mario as opposed to a woman sent spiraling after her cold husband ghosted her, when the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Disappointingly, Faenza's identification with the stabilizing male figures continues as Olga begins a tentative relationship with Damian (Goran Bregovic), the supportive musician neighbor who always fancied her but who was forced to keep his distance by an extension of Mario via his loyal dog.

And in spite of what feels like an artificially tacked-on moment of liberation where she finds a little bit of strength in herself before promptly passing out, opting to turn the neighbor into a veritable savior only augments the idea that all an Italian woman needs is a man to snap out of her depression.

Not alone in my belief, and regardless of my enjoyment of Bregovic, in one of the letters to Faenza included in the set, Ferrante urged the director to reconsider this intersection of character, theme, and plot point as well.

The type of film one can imagine would be handled quite differently if it had been written and directed by a woman, while I'm sure the filmmaker's heart was in the right place, despite some real moments of true artistry and outstanding performances within, there's little to recommend the film overall. Better left on the page, sadly had I not been watching Days for review, I would have certainly abandoned Olga as well, which cannot have been what Faenza or Ferrante had in mind.

Troubling Love (1995) 
AKA: L'amore Molesto

Chronologically the first of only two features to be made from Elena Ferrante's books ahead of the HBO miniseries adaptation of My Brilliant Friend, Troubling Love does a much better job of executing the way that women's experiences and trauma are handed down from one generation to the next.

One of the more interesting thematic threads that Roberto Faenza introduced in Days before ultimately abandoning it like his male lead Mario who hoped for something better, Troubling Love's Mario – writer-director Mario Martone – wisely turns the memories of its female characters into an overarching mystery, which begins to unspool prior to the suspicious death of our protagonist's mother.

Having received a series of odd, brief, and seemingly intimate phone calls from her mother just before her body is found in the sea, following the funeral, Anna Bonaiuto's young, reserved comic strip artist Delia leaves her home in Bologna to return to the Naples of her youth.

Flooded with memories of her parents and especially their gifts of creativity – from her father's painting and mother's work as a seamstress – which seem to have been passed down to their daughter, Delia begins to dig deeper once she reaches her hometown and enjoys a literal walk down memory lane.

Grabbing a slice to eat, Delia's Neapolitan reverie is soon interrupted by the predatory, overtly sexual behavior of men aimed her direction while she simply walks down the street (which seems even more disturbing to the eye today). Shot almost like a De Palma horror movie as Delia is followed, Martone puts us into our protagonist's shoes and we become acutely aware of the eyes of every male passerby.

Leaving us wondering if there's a link to her mother Amalia's death or if Martone is alluding to something bigger about Delia herself, both of these ideas come to fruition when our lead comes face-to-face with secrets and lies from her family's past including those she hasn't even begun to face herself.

An exploration of sex and gender roles that could inspire conversation around the globe, as fascinating as it is, Troubling is as narratively troubling as it is tonally inconsistent. And as Delia's mood shifts with each new discovery and interaction, the film strikes a much stronger chord as a psychosexual surrealist mystery a la Eyes Wide Shut than a traditional drama.

Yet whereas Kubrick’s Eyes takes place at night and deals with the unstable bond between husband and wife, save for a creepy, symbolic scene early on when a man comes for her mother's "dirty laundry," Troubling is set largely in the day and deals with the kaleidoscopic memories of guilt and betrayal between mother and daughter.

Trying to send us in another direction altogether, Martone (via Ferrante) throws two supporting male characters into the mix as potential red herrings. And although we inevitably predict the truth about what it is that Delia discovers she's really facing as soon as she steps into a revealing red dress left behind for her as a gift from her mother – the seamstress still dressing her beyond her grave – the disturbing yet fascinating path there makes for compelling viewing.

While those hoping for a conventional mystery or even a typical three act structure are sure to be disappointed (and the film should come with a trigger warning as it's sure to bring up a lot of issues), there's a lot here for viewers to unpack in what seems to be a much more faithful interpretation of Ferrante versus Faenzas's film.

Alluding to that in the extensive, lengthy letters written to Martone by Ferrante included in the set's informative booklet, despite Troubling's overall success when contrasted with Days, both works signal the struggle to successfully bring the author's books to the screen.

Proof of the uneasy disconnect between Ferrante's writing’s heavily internalized structure and the show-me medium of film, although Bonaiuto is outstanding in a difficult and evolving role, just like with Days, we still find ourselves startled by Troubling's freewheeling approach to logic, structure, and of course, gender.

A superior adaptation nonetheless, while it still hits hard today (and doubly so in the era of Me Too and Time's Up), Martone's film will inevitably play differently in its native Italy given the depiction of the tug-of-war between the sexes.

And while I can only hope that the next time someone tries to bring Ferrante'' books to life, it's a woman, in the end I would say that if you're looking for more Ferrante on Film (following My Brilliant Friend), you should pass up Days and stick with Love.

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