Nathan Willett formed Cold War Kids in 2004. Writing, recording, touring and performing has consumed him ever since.
If you haven’t read Elena Ferrante’s books, then talking about the movies and TV shows based on her writing might be like skipping dinner and going straight for the banana split. Decadent, yes, but you are seriously missing substance. It is often a struggle with great writing adapted for the screen when the main character’s internal monologue comprises the bulk of the story. You can lose most of the novel when you substitute all those questions with long, dramatic shots of an actor’s face. The HBO adaptation of My Brilliant Friend, I feel, pulled it off beautifully. It was like Goodfellas meets Godard. The Lost Daughter had all the malaise of the source material, but watching Dakota Johnson have a meltdown in a bikini, I was left wishing the voiceover would explain why.
Which brings us to the latest Ferrante adaptation, the new Netflix series The Lying Life of Adults. My goodness. The scenes of high and lowbrow 1980s Naples are so otherworldly and gorgeous. The mid-century glass dining room of Giovanna’s home, contrasted with the dilapidated, centuries-old architecture as she sprints into a chaotic punk show. It feels like hyper-curated set design, yet totally authentic. And also calls to mind the era and feel of Joanna Hogg’s superb films The Souvenir and The Souvenir Part II.
The magic of this Elena Ferrante story is that she flips the coming-of-age story on its head. Typically, we see a kid who discovers the hypocrisy of family and institutions – school, church, job, whatever – and their bubble is burst. They no longer believe. It is often a metaphor for losing your faith and “finding yourself.” You grew up being taught that God exists and institutions can be trusted. Then something terrible happens and you think, “How could God allow this to happen? He/she/it must not exist at all.” Suddenly the clouds part and a painful but beautiful light shines through. Adulthood begins.
In The Lying Life of Adults, Giovanna’s bubble is burst when she sees her mother playing footsie under the table with her friend’s father. She has grown up a progressive atheist. Her dad is an academic who made it out of a bad neighborhood. Their religion is Progressivism. But Giovanna is starting to see that her parents are, at their core, ruthless materialists. They believe in success and having nice things. There is a coldness and distance in their liberal idealism. And at least one of them is having an affair.
Enter the wonderful character of Aunt Vittoria. She has no status or intellect. She is a loser by the standards of Giovanna’s father. But she has a mysterious wisdom, sensuality and spirituality that Gio is attracted to. She mocks Gio’s father for being afraid of the dead and caring only about money. When she takes Gio’s rich friends to church, she is appalled that they don’t believe in God and haven’t been baptized. For three teenage girls coming from affluence and academia, this scene is romantic, exotic. Their parents taught them that God is a myth for the unenlightened. But they have abandoned their parents’ logic of upward mobility and entered Vittoria’s church. There they can embrace the mysteries of life.
In my own coming-of-age story, my parents were divorced and their religious community fell away, leaving me to rebel against the hypocrisy of institutionalized religion. Fortunately for me, I hung on to my faith. I love to read the Gospels in all their beauty and complexity. I eventually saw that God was not responsible for the institution. People are. I could never reconcile the aggressive style of Evangelicals with my introverted faith. So I saw myself as monk-like; a believer in the church of my home and agnostic in a public space.
But now I have kids. When we needed a preschool for our daughter, a neighbor told me not to go to the nearby Baptist church because they talk about Jesus with the kids. Somehow it seemed sneaky, deceitful even. “Kids should be able to choose what religion they want on their own,” he said. “Not be indoctrinated before they even have a choice.” He was wearing an NPR T-shirt. And he represented a “secular” worldview. I felt uncomfortable about this. Conflicted.
Suddenly, my own abstract, messy ideas about God and culture are not private. I want my kids to have the comfort of believing that God loves them. But not the baggage, the politics, the division, the gross stuff.
I was able to react against the religion of my parents and find my own truth. So what will my kids’ “coming-of-age” story be? Watching The Lying Life of Adults, I am reminded that all these highfalutin ideas matter far less than a simple truth: children learn less from what adults say and more by what they actually do.
In the show, Giovanna spirals after her parents’ separation. She is sexually active, but does not yet see any meaning in love. Then she meets a priest, Roberto. He is charismatic and loves her strong will and curiosity. When Gio tells her father, Andrea, that she wants to read the Gospels, she does so in order to shock and rebel against him. But he is not discouraging and tells her, “You must study them.”
This is such a brilliant Ferrante moment. To make an important distinction between reading and studying. Evangelicals believe that the message of the Gospels should wash over you, in order to transform you. They believe this book has been preserved by God to be read by simple, regular people, working people. To study it would drain the power of the Holy Spirit. To dissect the story academically would empty it of meaning.
After a public debate about politics and religion in the town square, Giovanna confronts Roberto about the Gospels’ inconsistencies. His reply begs her to lean into the mystery of God. Ironically, she has won the approval of Andrea and her family for her intellect and bravery. And intrigued Roberto.
But not Aunt Vittoria. I love her character because I am reminded of the simple faith of Evangelicals, in both the positive and negative sense. Vittoria is unimpressed by Giovanna’s intellect. To her, it is plain arrogance, and Giovanna has become just like her father, flaunting her big words.
Conversely, Vittoria puts Roberto on a pedestal. She wants him to be pure, venerated, above regular people. She needs this for her faith to be strong, because it is not built on the foundation of her own understanding, but on the charisma of Roberto. It reminds me of every time there is a scandal involving the pastor of a megachurch; the congregants are likely to lose their faith entirely because their belief has been placed not in God, but in a teacher. Someone who they saw as better than themselves.
Finally, when Giovanna returns to Roberto’s house, he asks to sleep with her, and the spell is broken. Another adult has proven false, another castle turns to sand in the waves.
Ultimately, as Giovanna’s adolescence comes to an end, she will take parts of her father and Vittoria with her. Ferrante avoids any easy answers, but I was left feeling Giovanna will continue in her quest to balance her intellect and spiritual seeking.