Movie Review: The Little Hours written and directed by Jeff Baena

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poster for the 2017 film “The Little Hours”

Plague is the new black

“Oh my goodness,” the dean said, looking stricken. Her office shelves were filled mostly with books about the Black Death, her walls decorated with old looking-illustrations of people suffering from boils or lesions or being piled into wheelbarrows, dead. Laura had not thought any wall art was more insufferable.

The Nix by Nathan Hill

I guess the plague is in vogue this summer. The above mentioned dean in Nathan Hill’s The Nix rose to her position by “knowing everything there was to know about…literature written during the plague, about the plague.”

And Jeff Baena’s new film, The Little Hours, is based on Boccaccio’s Decamaron, a series of one hundred tales written in the early 1300s and told by ten characters who have left Florence to try to escape the Black Death that is ravaging the city.

Actually, Baena’s film is an amalgamation of just three of Boccaccio’s hundred tales.

On the third day of the Decamaron, the first story is about a man who feigns to be a mute and is hired as a gardener for a convent of nuns, many of whom rush “to lie with him.” The second story of the day is about a servant who sleeps with the wife of a king. When the king discovers the affair, he cuts the servant’s hair when he sleeps so he’ll recognize him in the light of day. The servant foils the king’s plans by cutting the hair of all his fellow servants.

These two tales are combined and make up the main plot of The Little Hours, with Dave Franco as the shorn servant who then becomes the “mute” gardener to escape from the angry nobleman. And the convent he lands in is a roiling and randy world populated by Sister Alessandra, Sister Ginerva , and Sister Fernanda (Alison Brie, Kate Micucci, and Aubrey Plaza respectively) and led by Father Tommasseo (John C. Reiley) and Sister Marea (Molly Shannon).

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Sister Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) testing Massetto’s (Dave Franco) deafness

Towards the end of the Decameron, on the ninth day, there is a tale of an abbess who is roused from her bed, with the intention of catching a nun in bed with her lover. In the dark, however, instead of her veil, she puts on the pants of her own lover, which deflates much of her authority.

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This scene is nodded at towards the end of the film, and when Sister Marea (Molly Shannon) comes out of her cell to find out what is going on, she is indeed wearing her lover’s pants on her head. But there is whole lot more going on than merely a lovers’ tryst.

The Little Hours is broad in its comedy–much as Boccaccio and, later, Chaucer had presented. Primarily the presence of nuns who incongruously swear more lustily than Anthony Scaramucci and who are riddled with all kinds of lusts and desires provides the major thrust of the humor. But it seems slight and repetitive.

John C. Reilly as the priest who serves the convent is marvelous, and Fred Armisen’s turn as Bishop Bartolemeo towards the end of the film who must try to corral these wild colts into order is full of incredulous, eye-popping, double-takes. There are also amusing minor roles filled in by by Paul Reiser, Nick Offerman, Jemima Kirke and Lauren Weedman.

But the entire piece feels thin–almost like an extended SNL skit. And to be fair, after all, its intent is to capture only about 23% of Boccaccio’s masterpiece.

But–to its credit–The Little Hours has caused me to pull the Decameron off my shelf again.

Book Review: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

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Book cover for the Europa edition of The Days of Abandonment

A very good friend of mine—an Italian woman—has lately been going through a very rough patch in her marriage. These last few years have been filled with much drama and melodrama, with betrayals and reconciliations, with threats and recriminations, and with lots and lots of pain.

I know much of this because she is also a very good and honest writer, and, at times, I have been a sounding board/early reader for her essays as she finalizes them prior to sending them out. With these, I am a bad critic because I cannot separate the raw, emotional writing from the woman I know and care about. The quality of the writing seems secondary to the pain being displayed.  So I can’t focus on the writing as I should.

This was also the case when I first began Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. Immediately, it too draws you in with the story of an intelligent woman–a writer–blindsided and abandoned by a careless husband. It too draws you in with the raw pain, the self-doubt, the self-incrimination of one who has been abandoned.

And Ferrante’s writing is such that we forget easily that this is all a fiction–we believe we are reading the true story of a real woman who is in pain and confusion and despair.

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave,” reads the very first sentence.

And thus Olga, the narrator, is demolished. Her sense of self-worth is destroyed, her understanding of her past is shakened, her hope for the future vaporized. And through Ferrante’s words we feel that abandonment greatly.

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Book cover for the audio-book edition of The Days of Abandonment

Like one grieving at a death, the narrator experiences all the varying emotions of loss: she is in turn defeated and determined, angry and frustrated, confused and clear-minded.  Besides the trauma of her husband’s leaving, she must also deal with the business of raising two children and running a household.

At times, Olga can also be quite funny in her frustration and anger. Once when she goes to the telephone offices to complain that her service has been cut off, she is told that all complaints must be phoned in. Where do I  go, she asks “if I want to spit in somebody’s face”? And her attacking her ex the first day she sees him in the street with his mistress is very funny–and satisfying.

There is a sex scene–one that ends prematurely and unsatisfyingly for Olga– in which Olga attempts to grasp some sense of self-worth, and while sad and pathetic, it also highlights Ferrante’s skill as a writer for it is well-written and unique and believable–never an easy thing to do when describing sex.

There are sick children and dying dogs and grumpy natives and the usual manipulations that accompany a formal separation between couples. And through it all we see Olga hit bottom, recover and then survive.

At one point, Olga says, “In order to write well, I need to go to the heart of every question, of a smaller, safer place. Eliminate the superfluous. Narrow the field. To write truly is to speak from the depths of the maternal womb.

And this is what Ferrante herself has done with her novel–she has stripped away the “superfluous,” she has asked the essential questions, and she has written from the very depths.

One reviewer wrote that The Days of Abandonment could have been written only by someone who has experienced the pain and despair of sudden separation, and implied that this is Ferrante’s own story.  I don’t know if that is true or not.

I do know that such an assumption is a critical fallacy, and it demeans the artistry that Ferrante possesses. The Days of Abandonment is a novel; it is a piece of fiction. Whether Ferrante has drawn on her own experiences or not does not matter. She has created a work of art that stands on its own.

Olga’s story is ours to read, to think about and to empathize with.  And in the process, she becomes someone we care about and worry about and celebrate with.

It is like having a good friend tell you her story.

The Days of Abandoment by Elena Ferrante
translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa editions, 2005

 

Book Review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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“Cellar Window in the Courtyard” –illustration 2016 by jpbohannon

The English translation of Elena Ferrante’s L’amica geniale has been given the title My Brilliant Friend and for much of the book  we believe it to be a reference to Lila Cerullo, the daughter of the shoemaker and the much-admired friend of the narrator Elena Greco (known as Lenù). And indeed, the phrase fits, for Lila is a precociously wise, driven, and independently thinking little girl. (The novel spans the two girls’ lives from six to sixteen.) And yet, much later in the book, when Lila is being fitted for a wedding dress, it is she who utters the phrase, calling the quieter, less assured Lenù “my brilliant friend.”  Much to Lenù’s delight.

But close readers come to understand this much earlier in the novel. Through the first two-thirds of the book we are caught up in Lenù’s appreciation, competition, and admiration of her friend Lila. Lenù is telling the story of HER BRILLIANT FRIEND.  But gradually we realize that the novel is actually the story of Lenù, the story of her friendship with Lila, and the decisions the SHE ultimately makes not to be dragged down into the social stagnation that is their poor Neapolitan neighborhood. (Lenù is telling us this story as a 60-year old woman living in Turin after Lila’s son has called from Naples to say his mother has disappeared.)

That Lila is brilliant there is no doubt. She excels in grade school–always edging out her friend Lenù and everyone else–and wins the admiration of all the teachers. She is fierce and brave and sure of herself. Meanwhile, Lenù is like most every youngster, tentative, unsure of herself, and uncomfortable in her ever-changing body. Even after Lila has quit schooling at the age of twelve, she continues to learn and tutors Lenù in Latin and in Greek and sharpens Lenu’s mind with logic and politics and philosophy.

And while Lila finally succumbs to the fate circumscribed by the neighborhood courtyard, Lenù knows that her schooling–an “occupation’ that none of her neighbors or friends or family see the value of–is her only way to break beyond the poverty, the dirt, the violence.

And by this point we see that the novel is Lenù’s Icarus moment, her attempt to fly, to soar higher than those before her. We leave her “on the cliff’s edge,” as she begins to realize at Lila’s wedding the cords that the neighborhood could tie her down with.  We readers had also hoped that her friend Lila would join her, but she cannot. At least for now.

Elena Ferrante may be the most written about novelist of the past five years. She is reviewed in the mainstream press and in literary journals. She is both critically and popularly acclaimed.  And she is “anonymous”–no one knows her true identity. (Despite a mid-March break through, that cited a Florentine history professor who has denied that she is Ferrante.)  This mystery certainly has added to her cachet. And has added to the millions of words written about her.

And yet, even if there were no “mystery,” Ferrante would stand out. Her writing is more than masterful–the narrative is a driving, relentless tour of childhood, filled with incisive details–both external and internal–and a realistic understanding of human fears, desires, needs and ambitions. My Brilliant Friend–the first of Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels–follows the girls from six to sixteen, and captures exquisitely and perfectly, the pain and joy and dread and hopes of young children in a way that is unmatched in my reading.

Yet, like life itself when looking backwards, those ten years that Ferrante chronicles seem to fly by and are finished before we know it…or are ready for it.

I facetiously wrote to a friend that I found My Brilliant Friend “disappointing”: my great disappointment was that the 330-page novel was over so quickly.  I wanted it not to end.

I will take a breather…and then begin the second volume.