The show opens on the blue glow of a vibrating phone in a darkened bedroom in the middle of the night. The next evening, Elena, 60 years old, sits down at her laptop to write the story of a friendship. Not again during the series will anonymous screens interface between individuals. We leave Elena’s solitude for the dense social network of a 1950s neighborhood in Naples, Italy, where gossip jumps from balcony to balcony as women hang the laundry and each family is defined by the necessary trade they provide to the community. The Cerullo’s are the shoemakers; the Solara’s tend the café; the Carracci’s run the grocery; the Scanno’s sell fruits and vegetables, and so on, personal identities affixed through the symbiosis of small-town commerce, generations worth of friendship and rivalry.
To the eyes of a child, these tightly woven relationships are sprawling and wondrous, with darkened secrets underlying the apparent yet unknown alliances that surround. To a young adult, the stagnant, ancient make-up of the neighborhood is banal and suffocating, colored by violence and poverty. My Brilliant Friend chronicles such an evolution in perspective, as Elena, or Lenù, as she’s affectionately called, and her best friend, Lila, grapple with either accepting their own assumed roles within the community or devising an improbable means of escape.
The series is a co-production between HBO and Italian networks RAI and TIMvision, directed by Saverio Costanzo and based on the international best-selling novel by Elena Ferrante. My Brilliant Friend is the first installment in Ferrante’s quartet of novels covering the lifespan of these two women. Like the classical bildungsroman, My Brilliant Friend begins in childhood and ends with a marriage. Unlike the classical bildungsroman, this marriage does not confer upon the bride her desired social position. Marriage only begins a new era of resistance, and HBO has ordered a follow-up season, based on Ferrante’s second novel in the quartet, to see where the resistance will lead.
Ferrante’s novels have won readers the world over with their gritty milieu and their penetrating psychology, but most salient is the hushed intimacy of the reading experience, as if taken into the confidence of the small enclosure of friendship Lenù and Lila have constructed within the crowded streets of their neighborhood. The early episodes of the season capture the mood well. We see the people of the town in snatches and glimpses, from unprivileged angles, as if we were too low to the ground to have a clear vantage, just as young Lenù (Elisa Del Genio) and young Lila (Ludovica Nasti) experience them. We rely on the meaning-making the girls share in whispers and fantasies to formulate our own sense of their world.
As Lenù and Lila mature, played as young women by Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace respectively, their fears and understandings of the world change in accordance with their bodies. Other than Netflix’s Big Mouth, there has not been a show more insistent on the disheartening drama of skin blemishes or more sympathetic to a woman’s first menstruation. The threat of violence transfers from abusive parents to the unwanted attentions of men, who try to claim the girls as if they were promising new real estate. But, the girls fight back. Lenù uses education to broaden her horizons, while Lila must contrive a strategy more cunning and secretive.
Ferrante’s readers will be pleased with the adaptation. Of course, novels and cinema speak a different language, and, predictably, fans of the book will find the series trading moments of Ferrante’s quiet poetry for sequences of heightened spectacle, but, ultimately, the essentials of the story are fully intact, and they carry an urgency that is well purposed to the new medium while still being faithful to the novel. The HBO series is a remarkable opportunity for new audiences to discover the intimate, caustic world of My Brilliant Friend and for old audiences to revel in it a little while longer.