I spent a happy month this year living in thrall to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, a four-part saga following two women across the back half of the 20th century. Ferrante addiction is a global pandemic, of course. Since the 2012 publication of the first volume, My Brilliant Friend, the series has sold an estimated kamillion copies in an estimated bazillion countries. Their sweep is epic, moving with mathematical precision from a particularly memorable school competition, through long days in a working class neighborhood, into great political upheavals and greater personal tragedies. In macro, the mind races for heavy comparisons: Woolf, Tolstoy, Eliot, the other Eliot. And Ferrante’s style is intimate, confessional, very funny. It has the unputdownable quality of one of those Twitter stories that used to go viral before Twitter was an all-consuming virus, a cheerful personal anecdote spiraling toward almost psychedelic rage.
Now My Brilliant Friend has been adapted into a series, with an eight-episode debut season rolling out on HBO starting Nov. 18. (Further seasons would, theoretically, adapt the later books.) The six episodes I’ve seen are a graceful adaptation of Ferrante’s first volume, brought to life by a talented young cast of mostly unknown performers. Director Saverio Costanzo films this coming-of-age story with admirable fluency. The show can’t compete with the book for sheer hallucinatory artistry. But by the third episode, you’re successful invested in a large cast, multiple local families all blessed with what you could call a classically Catholic amount of children.
It’s a whole community brought to fearful life. More simply, this is the story of a woman remembering her youth. We meet elderly Elena (Elisabetta De Palo) in the present-ish day. Her childhood friend Lila has just disappeared. This absence sends her back through memories of postwar Naples. Here we meet young Elena (Elisa Del Genio), a quiet and thoughtful child. She falls under the spell of Lila (Ludovica Nasti), charismatically tough in a manner her society might describe as “willful.”
Costanzo films these performers on their level, letting us join these tiny beings staring upward at a strange society. There’s a dreamy quality to the first two episodes. Lila and Elena develop a fantastical understanding of the real terror lingering all around. One local powermonger looks, to the girls, like a monster out of fairy tales. Violence is a constant: husbands beating wives, fathers beating children, one man physically throwing another halfway across a street.
An earlier generation of showbiz would’ve turned My Brilliant Friend into a movie — or, possibly, redacted the Neapolitan epic into a decade-crushing feature. Working with a writing staff that includes the mysterious Ferrante herself, Costanzo adeptly paces this long story. There’s an early misadventure where Lila and Elena set out on a long walk toward a sea, a Tom-and-Huck tall tale that builds from leisure into eerie tension. Del Genio is quite a find, her searching eyes a near-perfect expression of Book Elena’s watchful narrative gaze. (The show’s narration itself is, unfortunately, the least successful element here, shortcutting epiphanies the performers are already expressing with subtlety.) And Nasti’s a T-shirt icon of precocious toughness. Her brazen confidence makes Lila invigorating, and a bit freaky. You want to be on her side.
The complex friendship between Elena and Lila is the titular heart of the series, but the focus expands as the series moves forward in time. Teenage Elena (now played by Margherita Mazzucco) and Lila (Gaia Girace) don’t believe in fairy-tale monsters, but that just means the horrors around them are more terribly real.
Consider the malicious Solara brothers (Elvis Esposito and Alessio Gallo), who patrol the neighborhood in their fancy car. There’s a scene in the third episode in which they drive up to the square and forcefully convince Ada (Ulrike Migliaresi) — a girl Lila and Elena’s age — to get into the car for “a spin.” It’s the visual subject of a thousand midcentury memories — the young dudes, the sweet car, the innocent girl, the ride. But Costanzo captures an essential quality of Ferrante’s fiction, a kind of weary anger, a feminist exhaustion with the cudgel of male nostalgia. Here, that sequence (with its direct implications of sexual assault) becomes a collective violation, adults looking on offering no help, the other girls aware it could’ve been them.
It’s all even more complicated than that, of course. The teen episodes of My Brilliant Friend tap the characters’ political awakening, learning about fascists, learning about communists, understanding what it means to be working-class. And then there are the everyday matters of being young: romance, school, ambitions to change the world. Lila seems to be a child prodigy, but her parents need her to work alongside her older brother, Rino (Gennaro De Stefano), in her father’s shoe store. Elena’s studies continue, and carry her in unexpected directions: The series maintains the book’s pinpoint fixation on her education, with Latin test scores as a key subplot.
Both roles are tricky. Girace shines as Lila. There’s a rawness to her performance that reminds me of the younger days of Toshiro Mifune, that daring willingness to play fierce confidence on the edge of parody. Mazzucco has to play a more internal, anxiously adolescent Elena. It took a few hours, but I grooved onto her energy. Her performance reminds you that most teen introverts spend their waking life simmering with rage at their own shyness. Teenage Elena, man, sono io.
Around the lead characters, we start to see a whole generation come of age. I mean it as a compliment when I say that My Brilliant Friend is the year’s best teen drama, drawing you into the lives, loves, and struggles of a group of children cusping on adulthood. A swooning dance sequence sparks a local love quadrangle. An island getaway becomes the stage for an endearingly nerdish flirtation — which gives way to an almost unbearable sequence of bedroom horror. A rooftop fireworks celebration sparkles with all the innocent possibilities of youth. Enemies become friends, maybe more, or maybe not. There’s a stretch when the main narrative engine is watching Lila juggle various suitors, the stuff of romcom subplots and internet fandoms. You watch with fascination — and with horror. My Brilliant Friend is very fun, but it’s also a vivid depiction of history as a nightmare from which two women are trying to awake. A-
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