‘Ferrante Fever’ and a diva’s downfall

Two documentaries – on novelist Elena Ferrante and singer Whitney Houston – are highlights of Jerusalem festival.

Whitney Houston (photo credit: JERUSALEM FILM FESTIVAL)
Whitney Houston
The Lev Smadar theater looked like a giant book club at the screening of Giacomo Durzi’s documentary Ferrante Fever on Monday.
The film, which was screened as part of the Jerusalem Film Festival, which runs through August 5, attracted an intense and mainly female crowd, many of whom looked as if they were attending with their BFFs.
That was fitting because the best-known novels of Elena Ferrante, the Neapolitan quartet, are about the lifelong and extraordinarily complex friendship of two girls from a working-class Naples neighborhood.
The title of the documentary is not hyperbole, because these literary page-turners are truly a phenomenon. Their quality and intensity have made them wildly popular – according to the film, they have been published in 48 countries – and interest in the author has been fueled by the fact that Ferrante, who apparently writes under a pseudonym, has never revealed her true identity or made a public appearance. This has led to wild speculation — that she is actually a man, or a married couple who works together, for example. In 2016, an Italian journalist came up with the theory that she is the Jewish daughter of Holocaust survivors. But Ferrante refused to come forward to confirm or deny that, and the film does not try to expose the reclusive author, only to celebrate her work and define its appeal.
Michael Reynolds, the editor-in-chief of Europa Editions, which published Ferrante’s work around the world, sums it up by saying, “There has never been anything quite like this before” in literature. Other writers and literary figures from Italy and around the world discuss the impact her work has had on them, among them Jonathan Franzen and Elizabeth Strout, as well as Ann Goldstein, her English translator. Common themes emerge as they discuss her books: the charged and often contradictory emotions between female friends and mother and daughters, the literary elegance, and the lack of political posturing and sentimentality. But all agree on one thing: the books are addictive. Even Hillary Clinton, in a radio interview during her campaign, said she had to “ration” the books so she could still work.
There are no revelations here, and the movie is a traditional talking-heads documentary, interspersed with animations of her characters and a recreations of a dark figure who might be Ferrante, as well as effective clips from the feature films made from her early books.
Like a good book club session, Ferrante Fever is fun because it’s nice to be in the company of people who are as crazy about these novels as you are.
One of the other highlights of the 35th Jerusalem Film Festival so far has been a portrait of a very different woman: Whitney, a Whitney Houston biopic by Kevin Macdonald.
You might think you know all you need or want to know about the troubled pop star, who struggled with drug addiction for years and died in 2012 at the age of 48. But in the hands of Macdonald, who made the extraordinary Bob Marley documentary Marley, and who also directed several feature films, including The Last King of Scotland, it is not like an episode of Behind the Music but a gripping and tragic story.
Macdonald is true cinema royalty since he is the grandson of Emeric Pressburger, the Austrian Jewish director who made such classics as The Red Shoes. He is a relentless interviewer, pressing Houston’s family and associates about how such a talented young woman could have descended into drug-fueled hell.
The answer, as it often is in such stories, is both clear and elusive. Her gifts as a singer, as well as her beauty and vivacity, made everyone around her wealthy, and they were reluctant to discipline her or even give her a modicum of support until it was way too late. In spite of her poise and talent, she didn’t have the strength she needed to take control of her life.
Her visit to Israel with her then-husband Bobby Brown in 2003, in which the couple were baptized in the Jordan River and feted by the Black Hebrews of Dimona, is not included in the film, but many will recognize the disoriented figure seen in the later parts of Whitney from the news clips of her visit here.
The film reveals the truth of her hardscrabble upbringing in Newark, during which she and her brothers were shuffled from house to house as their mother, gospel star and backup singer Cissy Houston, performed all over the country, as well as her bisexuality, which her publicity machine tried to keep a secret, and other little-known chapters in her life. It’s heartbreaking to see how the father she idolized and supported financially for decades ended up suing her for $100 million, and how she was kicked out of rehab because she couldn’t pay her bills after her associates bilked her.
Macdonald puts her story in the context of what was going on culturally and politically at the time, and avoids most biopic clichés to turn Whitney into a sad and riveting fable of a princess who seemed to embody so many fantasies but never had the stability she needed.
Both Ferrante Fever and Whitney will be shown later in the week at the festival, and will likely be headed for theaters or television.
For more information, go to the festival website at http://jff.org.il/en