Blu-Ray Releases: Elena Ferrante on Film (1995/2005) Reviewed

Elena Ferrante was a name I was unfamiliar with before tackling this set, but after viewing The Days of Abandonment and Troubling Love as a double feature, I wonder how there haven't been more adaptations of her work before. There's clearly a very strong sense of confidence and experience in her story writing, and a massive amount of emotion and heart that at least tries to convey itself through these possibly somewhat lower budgeted films. She's apparently a very hot commodity in the novel scene over in Italy, and hopefully through this home video release by Film Movement, she will get to enjoy a wider audience here in the States. It's relieving to see so many companies now trying to bring a more diverse range of foreign cinema to the front of American audience's attention nowadays- with companies like FM and Criterion and Arrow Video, there's a plethora of options and possibilities to expand one's horizon and tastes in ways we never thought possible before. Elena Ferrante on Film might be one of the lesser-known and lauded releases in this niche area of cinema, but that doesn't make it any less valuable in its contribution to the American art house crowd.

The Days of Abandonment (2005)

The lesser of the two choices in this intriguing release, The Days of Abandonment suffers from an almost soap opera-like quality in its production that severely hampers what could have been an outstanding work of Italian cinema. Its writing is clearly confident and well-polished, but the production quality behind the camera and in its central performances feel weirdly uglier in presentation than what I may have expected. There's no uniform sense of style or pacing, either: one moment, it's an existential crisis, the next it's a harrowing family drama with a weirdly upbeat soundtrack. This almost schizophrenic tone that director Roberto Faenza takes with his adaptation is nearly laughable in how terribly melodramatic it wants to be. 

The soundtrack itself, as well, is probably the worst offender here. I haven't the first idea what kind of budget this movie had in its production, but its electronically orchestral score is jarring and takes you completely out of being engrossed in its otherwise substantial story. It hearkens back to the extremely low budget scores of movies like The Room (yes, that one) to the point where I was almost distracted from what I was supposed to be focusing on in the story. Don't get me wrong: low budgeted films can be fantastic, if done right. But the waste of talent put into this quality of production is almost depressing to watch, considering the premise itself was already so intriguing to me. 

That's not to say it's entirely a wash. There is some appreciation to be gleaned from the at least valiant pieces of melodrama that Ferrante so clearly does so well in her own writing. A key moment near the end is mentally crushing- a breaking point for the film's protagonist that shattered my heart, but I can't help but almost feel like it was intentional in its emotional manipulation. Its breaking point was randomly placed in for the sake of it being there: no rhyme or reason could be made from its ending after the credits started rolling. There's clearly a lot of heart behind this production, but I'm not entirely convinced that everyone involved had the gumption to effectively pull it off the way it was supposed to be done.

Trobling Love (1995)

Troubling Love (or Nasty Love, as it's known here) is a fascinating complex web of mysteries that finds its deception of memory unraveling through flashbacks that periodically appear throughout the story. These flashbacks are triggered via key moments in the protagonist Delia's quest to discover her recently deceased mother's past, and what may have led to her untimely demise. It's a haunting and beautiful tale of strained love, and the ultimate price that was paid as the consequence of its focal character's actions.

Despite being made ten years before The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love immediately feels far superior in quality to the former. There's a lot more style and professionalism in its production quality, the performances are more tangible and robust, and the music is far more palatable in its already stellar winding tale. The story radiates with bursts of inspiration and originality: whereas Days had an almost Lifetime-esque quality to its plot and its predictable, if not intriguing, unfolding; Troubling Love keeps you invested in its story. Ferrante's deceptive tale plays with your perspective and expectations as we follow Delia through painful repressed memories of abuse and sexual torment, suggesting that maybe her mother wasn't exactly the same person she thought she remembered. Its revelations are purely circumstantial- relying on triggers through present day incidents that somehow find themselves connected to her past- but the satisfaction of having its story unveiled bit by bit until everything finally comes to light is more than thrilling to experience.

The landscape of Naples provides a gorgeous scenery for the setting of Troubling Love. The greatest of Italian films at least almost always have a sensible kind of design that manages to capture the essence of Italy in ways that most American filmmakers could only dream of, and here it's no exception. It's not necessarily Fellini levels of masterful beauty, but there's still a sentimental kind of romance that can be felt in its visual beauty.

I had absolutely no familiarity with Elena Ferrante before watching these two films, but it's clearer than ever now that there just have to be some more books by her that could benefit from great Italian adaptations. I saw through these films an essential human condition of love that is torn apart and put back together again in ways I'd never seen before- for better or for worse. The central theme of love and its driving forces behind either building up motivation or tearing down willpower becomes an overwhelming emotion that becomes even clearer when viewing these two pieces back to back. The Days of Abandonment may suffer from a generally lower budget and even lower quality production materials and cast members, but there was still an essential dramatic pull that I loved to see in that film. These are undoubtedly two severely underseen pieces of local Italian cinema that would make a great addition to the collection of any Italian film connoisseur's. 

-Wes Ball