The highly anticipated adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s best-selling Neapolitan Novels successfully premiered its first two episodes at the Venice Film Festival. ‘My Brilliant Friend’ is the first non-English series ever realized by HBO.
As in the book, the series begins with the protagonist Elena, a 60-something-year-old writer, discovering that her childhood friend Lila has disappeared without a trace. Struck and hurt by the news, Elena starts writing a narrative about her friendship with Lila. Following Elena’s voiceover, we go back in time to 1950s Naples, when Elena and Lila are introduced as young students in the all-female class led by Maestra Oliviero. Elena (played by the blonde and pale Elisa Del Genio) is smart, gentle and loved by all because of her fragile beauty and politeness. On the other hand, olive-skinned Ludovica Nasti plays Lila, brilliantly exploring the contradictions of her character: sensitive but also vicious and unruly. Lila threatens Elena’s established position at the top of the class when Maestra Oliviero finds out that the little girl has learned how to read and write by herself.
The two quickly become close thanks to their shared intelligence, curiosity and determination amidst a patriarchal working-class neighborhood that is dominated by violence, nepotism and the idea that girls should not study, but help their mothers at home. Aware that the only possible escape from the claustrophobic context is getting an education, the two friends spend their time challenging each other in and outside of school. The scene where the two play with their dolls perfectly summarises the girls’ relationship: after Lila throws Elena’s doll into a cellar, Elena quickly does the same, shouting “What you do, I do!” Seemingly inseparable, Elena and Lila are divided by fate when Elena’s father realizes his little girl’s potential and decides to send her to middle school – in spite of his wife’s opposition and resentment – while Lila’s father angrily shouts at his son: “Why should your sister, who is a girl, study?”
“We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded […] and sometimes people died”; “Life was like that, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us”: the setting that Ferrante describes so vividly in her books becomes a throbbing reality in the series thanks to the realistic production design – designer Giancarlo Basili built the setting from scratch – and beautiful cinematography. Details of everyday life such as the hanging laundry, the echoing stairwells, the fruit and vegetable cart, and the wives talking to one another from the balconies are juxtaposed with continuous acts of disrupting violence. Two that are particularly effective are when the young Solara brothers, driven by their father, kick a man to death and leave him bleeding on the street under everyone’s eyes, and when Lila is thrown out of the window by her father.
In the bleakness of the context, the naturalistic performances of the two young protagonists are bright and hopeful. Cast from the streets of Naples by director Saverio Costanzo, Del Genio and Nasti manage to combine Elena’s quiet honesty with Lila’s layered intensity in interactions that are emotional even when silent. In this story, female friendship is complex and authentic, blending together feelings of jealousy, affection, competition and respect. These female perspectives of post-war Italy are striking: refusing to be crushed by the deeply male ideology that surrounds them, they tell a story of fighting provincialism, chauvinism, and inequality.
‘My Brilliant Friend’ will debut on HBO in the fall.