The Elena Ferrante adaptation continues with lush romance and sensitive feminist rage.

March 16, 2020 at 01:44 PM EDT
Eduardo Castaldo/HBO

My Brilliant Friend (TV series)

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One unusual thing I love about My Brilliant Friend is my complete inability to figure out how old anyone is. The passionate and brutal adaptation of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan quartet stars teenagers as teenagers, but the characters grow up fast in 1960s Naples. Season 2, which starts Monday on HBO, is designated The Story of a New Name after the second book in the series. Lila (Gaia Girace) starts off as a newly married child-bride, and it's not long before she's a cynical store manager desperately housewifing against her abusive husband, Stefano (Giovanni Amura). Lila's best friend Lenù (Margherita Mazzucco) experiences more recognizably high-schoolish dramas: unrequited-love quadrangle, grades trouble, disapproving glares from Mom, a boyfriend-girlfriend makeout sesh awkwardly rounding second base. This is an era of cultural transformation, though, and soon she's debating class warfare at dance parties.

Lenù's a sensitive four-eyes too shy to reveal her true feelings for brainy politi-hipster Nino (Francesco Serpico). Lila is every fiery adjective ever written about Italian women. They protect each other, and compete bitterly. Girace brims with glamorous assurance, giving her rebel-with-a-cause polymath a snarly humor. Mazzucco embodies social passiveness and intellectual strength, so Lenù becomes a sweet-smiled "nice girl" taking mental notes of the ruin around her.

My Brilliant Friend debuted back in 2018, one of many recent foreign-language TV shows benefiting from adventurous American viewers unafraid of subtitles. I enjoyed season 1 and worried it was too dutiful in its re-creation of the novels (which I adore). Season 2 still has some scenes that feel like undigested (wonderful) prose, plus a voice-over that murders all subtext.

But series creator Saverio Costanzo, who directs most episodes, gets more visually audacious in his dramatization. The premiere features a terrifying marital assault on Lila's wedding night. The couple return home for a big family meal, bride's face beaten blue. Costanzo films the dinner mostly from Lila's perspective, so we watch everyone double-taking over her bruise. Mother, father, brother, in-laws, siblings: Nobody says anything. It's a devastating portrait of the culture of silence. There are so many moments like that in My Brilliant Friend, well-appointed period-piece drapery shockwaving into Feminist Horror chills.

The three episodes I've seen of the eight-part season evoke Lenù's expanding political conscience and Lila's boiling rage. This is still sumptuous getaway TV—and the opening credits tease an upcoming trip to Ischia, Ferrante's preferred island for tormented love and unspeakable lust. Credit Costanzo for filling the cast with memorable faces. Amura's Stefano is an ego-tripping grotesque, his baby face and Pete Campbell hairline rendering him the world's youngest dirty old man. Anna Rita Vitolo imbues Lenù's mother with a toughness barely masking hardscrabble sorrow. The world around this great ensemble changes quickly: neighborhoods building skyward, loosening traditions, bright ideas, old problems. Lila and Lenù seem to be learning about society just in time to watch it burn. With any luck, they'll light the match. A-

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My Brilliant Friend (TV series)

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