The pseudonymous novelist Elena Ferrante’s appeal to television producers remains as clear as the Tyrrhenian Sea. Sun-kissed Italian locations; prominent female leads, afforded greater agency than the Italian media have traditionally afforded their women; material that’s genre-adjacent, but open to more emotion than genre mechanics typically allow. As HBO’s much-lauded ‘My Brilliant Friend’ — three seasons in, headed for a fourth — has demonstrated, Ferrante’s flinty prose excavates not just time and place, but class and attitudes. That these projects function as deluxe soap is down to the abrasive element of social history salted into their fragrance and colouring: To wallow in these texts is to better understand how Italians used to live.
Netflix’s new six-part adaptation of Ferrante’s “The Lying Life of Adults” is framed as the coming-of-age of a sleuthy heroine; the mystery she stumbles into concerns her own extended family. When we meet Giovanna (Giordana Marengo), she’s much like any other bourgeois teen bouncing around Naples in the early 1990s: sensitive about her tomboyish appearance, but busy enough with the usual rounds of studies, gigs and familial obligations. It’s during the latter that she becomes aware of the volcanic faultline in her clan, separating her tweedy academic father Andrea (Alessandro Preziosi) from his defiantly proletarian sister Vittoria. Given that Vittoria’s played by Valeria Golino, introduced blasting Edith Piaf from her balcony, you’d be right to assume she’s the pivotal presence here.
Having spent the decades since her Hollywood flirtation working in films that have only occasionally flown beyond the festival circuit, Golino seizes this lived-in role with skilled and grateful hands. Vittoria is the kind of firebrand Anna Magnani was associated with in the 1950s and ’60s: blunt to the point of vicious, sucking the pips from oranges and taking scissors to no-good men’s crotches, but also prone to a peppery poetry (“I wear life around my neck like a medal with two sides”). She’s well-paired with Marengo, a newcomer positioning herself as a more robust version of the young Kristen Stewart, defiant eyes peeping beneath unruly curls to spot her guardians’ failings and register anger, hurt and sullen disquiet.
For her part, Giovanna’s caught between worlds, whether school-girl innocence and an awareness of adult frailty, or cosy middle-class hypocrisy and the wilder Neapolitan fringes Vittoria embodies. Location manager Raffaele Cortile excels both sides of the tracks, sourcing aspirational apartments, junked construction projects and long-forgotten backstreets, while forever allowing a sightline on the literal and metaphorical horizons offered by the city’s docks. If director Edoardo De Angelis can’t match the flair Paolo Sorrentino brought to his recent Netflix-backed, Naples-set cine-memoir ‘”The Hand of God,” the show does succeed in drawing a visual map of possibilities for its heroine — some idea of where she might end up.
What’s lacking is sustained narrative momentum. The book drew respectful critical notices, but also whisperings it was minor Ferrante, a feeling the series underlines. Much of the show operates on an anecdotal level, comprised of those everyday indiscretions most families negotiate without going cap-in-hand to a streaming giant. Its central stretch is a stretch: you can feel De Angelis making stodgy meals out of a crosstown car journey and a bracelet ownership dispute to meet his episode quota. As the story diminishes, you come to notice several eccentric supplementary choices: composer Enzo Avitabile’s loops and noodles, for example, which have the air of an experimental temp track that’s outstayed its welcome.
Eventually, however, “Lying Life” finds its way to a kind of dramatic maturity. Its supremely atmospheric, self-contained penultimate episode unfolds around a Communist Party fair that now seems redolent, not just of another era, but another universe, too. Giovanna and Vittoria find themselves newly at odds over a boyish theologist (Giovanni Buselli, whose Christ-like mien Pasolini would have adored), the writing deepens, and the whole briefly gets within touching distance of the BBC’s “Our Friends in the North,” the great televised social history of the past 30 years. (If any or all of that sounds heavy, rest easy: It also contains the show’s best joke, an offhand crack at the expense of Visconti’s film of “The Leopard”)
Suddenly, De Angelis connects with the vital ambiguities that distinguish “My Brilliant Friend”; the characters start to feel more scuffed by experience than they were initially, or than characters commonly feel in period drama. When Giovanna tells the theologist “I have a good memory,” it’s less a boast than an acknowledgement of the circumstances that lead impressionable young minds to both retain and recall pain. (The closing image is itself anecdotal, but resonates no less for it.) Even minor Ferrante proves to hold a sense of what it was to live through its period — it’s just accompanied here by the altogether more familiar feeling of seeing a Netflix show with a few too many episodes for its own creative good.