Virgin and Child in Majesty against a scenic background
By Invitation
The Lost Daughter: Elena Ferrante’s Haunting Mothers on the Big Screen

After the global success of Saverio Costanzo’s HBO television drama My Brilliant Friend, based on Elena Ferrante’s four-part novel, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut brings the author’s less well-known third novel The Lost Daughter (2006) to the big screen. As Italy’s leading female author who famously writes under a pseudonym, Ferrante has authored [eight novels]( Her latest work of fiction The Lying Life of Adults will shortly be released as a Netflix series, directed by Edoardo De Angelis.

Gyllenhaal’s adaptation of The Lost Daughter breaks new ground by narrating a global female imaginary of women and mothers at breaking point (Ferrante’s ‘smarginatura’, or dissolving margins) that remains underexplored and often silenced in cultural production. 

Thanks to Olivia Coleman (as the middle-aged protagonist Leda) and Jessie Buckley’s (as the younger Leda in a series of flashbacks) immersive performances, the cinematic images of The Lost Daughter tell a powerful story of the unspoken depths of motherhood. 

When Leda embarks on a long-awaited holiday on a fictional Greek island, her peace and quiet are soon disrupted by the encounter with a large, noisy American family. The seemingly idyllic relationship of the mother-daughter duo Nina (Dakota Johnson) and Elena stirs uncomfortable memories of Leda’s own mothering. 

What follows is the gradual unravelling of Leda’s past that sees her breaking some of the sacred taboos of motherhood, daring to put her own needs first. We witness how she struggled to cope with the suffocating demands of her daughters, and how she left her young children to pursue a career as an academic.

While key parts of Ferrante’s original narrative are well conveyed in the film, some vital contextual elements get lost in translation.

1.    Ambivalent Motherhood as an existential condition 

Leda’s visit to the beach triggers a confrontation with her past as an ambivalent mother who is often unsure of the unconditional devotion demanded by her children and societal norms.

The film powerfully captures the moments of psychic entrapment of the symbiotic yet suffocating mother-daughter relationship. A series of claustrophobic extreme close-ups and frantic, handheld shots effectively convey the tension. These include some beautiful episodes that show the intimacy and almost fluid entanglement of mother, child and the doll’s bodies as they frolic on the beach.

Yet, the perilously pointed knife in the first flashback foreshadows the darker sides of motherhood in moments of apparent lightness (in this case, the recurring ritual of peeling an orange, ‘peel it like a snake’, which also precedes Leda’s eventual departure). The subsequent disappearance of Elena (who gets lost on the beach and is found by Leda) and then the doll Nani (in a gratuitous act of theft by Leda) – a central topic also in the My Brilliant Friend cycle - unleashes inner turbulence in Leda and disrupts Nina and Elena’s seemingly perfect mother-daughter union.

One of the symptoms of maternal ambivalence can be post-natal depression, a pathology that Nina mentions in the film and which remains underrepresented in contemporary film and literature (with the notable exception of Alina Marazzi’s films). 

However, Ferrante’s Lost Daughter does not include any references to a medicalised condition. Rather, her texts explore a broader existential, female condition of psychical fragmentation (‘frantumaglia’, in the novel) that has its roots in the violent gender dynamics of Leda’s harsh upbringing in patriarchal Neapolitan society. In fact, Ferrante’s account of Leda’s seaside encounter with what is originally a Neapolitan family with links to the Camorra (the Neapolitan mafia) is deeply embedded in the ethnographic specificity of the character’s southern Italian past. 

Leda’s choices emerge from a milieu associated with domestic violence and a lack of social mobility that particularly affects women. Ferrante’s ‘frantumaglia’, first experienced by Leda’s mother and subsequently by Leda and Nina, hence defines a transgenerational female condition rooted in [trauma]( that goes well beyond the short-term, pathological state of (post-natal) depression. 

2.    Leda’s mother(s)

The film opens at night, with the protagonist Leda dressed in white staggering along the beach and ultimately collapsing along the shoreline. What springs to mind is a key scene in Mario Martone’s film adaptation of Ferrante’s first novel, Troubling Love, in which the protagonist’s mother drowns on the beach at night, triggering the daughter’s journey back to her native Naples and her troubled past.

Leda does not drown, but her visit to the threshold space of the beach is the start of a similar immersion into a past in which her mother, and indeed the archaic suffering of her female ancestors, looms large. The novel includes several flashbacks to her mother’s violent outbursts (in Neapolitan dialect – a trigger in Leda’s encounter with the clan on the beach) and her pent-up rage that is often directed against her children. 

Yet, while the mother forms an essential part of Leda’s self-examination in the novel, she is only once referred to in the film as ‘the black shithole […] that I came from’. The absence of this lineage of mothers in Gyllenhaal’s film leaves a lacuna that fails to account for the damaging effects of mothering within the framework of patriarchal power structures. 

Gyllenhaal’s Leda may come across as an entitled, intellectual snob. The character's upbringing in the often violent sub-proletarian context of Naples and its criminal underworld, however, provide an essential component of Ferrante’s writings that make the setting a vital part of the plot. 

In their recent Ferrante adaptations for television, HBO and Netflix have interestingly opted to use not only the original Italian but to introduce the use of Neapolitan dialect that is largely absent from the books, a bold and indeed (at the launch of the HBO series in 2018) unprecedented choice for a globally marketed series. The cultural-linguistic setting in Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, on the other hand, is rather diluted in the film into what at times appears as an awkwardly engineered Italo-Greek-American backdrop. It fails to capture the significance of Leda’s emancipation from a complex, and often subaltern condition of women in the Mediterranean South.

Gyllenhaal’s film and its many felicitous cinematic renderings will no doubt play an important part in enhancing the understanding of and stimulating debate about the ambivalences of motherhood, unhinged from its societal and cultural constraints. Yet, Ferrante’s work provides a powerful subtext to the film that should be read by anyone interested in the complexities of the maternal, and indeed the female subject.

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Elena Ferrante

The success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (2011-14) has sparked worldwide buzz in and out of academia, in literary journals, and in book clubs. Ferrante is the author of eight novels, a collection of papers related to her work as a writer, Frantumaglia, and a children’s book, The Beach at Night.


When it comes to Ferrante, we may feel, indeed, stranded on a beach, at night, left there to collect the tokens of her presence and whereabouts in this world. The tokens are words and in them we find the lucid exactness of worlds inhabited by characters who are as vivid and real as she is elusive. They deal with what the author has called frantumaglia, a term she borrows from her mother and her Neapolitan dialect (frantummàglia): "it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain. The frantumaglia was mysterious, it provoked mysterious actions, it was the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause" (Frantumaglia, Kindle edition). Ferrante’s compelling narrative dives into terribly muddy waters and surfaces from them with the strength of truth, where truth means not moral clarity but the unmistakable verity of naked human emotions. The origin of the word frantumaglia is very material; it refers, in fact, to a pile of fragments from broken objects that cannot be pieced together again.

This Colloquy seeks to bring together in one ongoing conversation, from a variety of intellectual perspectives, the voices of the international discourse about Ferrante’s novels and the significance of her work in the contemporary literary landscape.

As for who Ferrante might be, I propose again her response to a reader who sought to know her identity: "[. . .] what is better than reading in a room that is dark except for the light of a single reading lamp? Or what is better than the darkness of a theater or a cinema? The personality of a novelist exists utterly in the virtual realm of his or her books. Look there and you will find eyes, sex, lifestyle, social class, and the id" (Frantumaglia, Kindle edition)

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