Based on Elena Ferrante’s first Neapolitan Novel, My Brilliant Friend is a work of quiet confidence. It feels less like a new production than a best-kept secret from another era that was recently unearthed. This is all the more remarkable considering the budget that co-producers HBO and Italy’s RAI and TMIVision have lavished on it. The central location from Ferrante’s novel — a 1950s-era Neapolitan slum — is a set that looks to be as huge as the title locales of Deadwood and Rome. Existing locations have been decorated to match their appearances six-plus decades ago, and the backgrounds teem with period-accurate extras and vehicles: an overhead shot of the parking lot of Piazza del Plebiscito boasts nearly a hundred vintage cars. Somehow, though, the result feels intimate and modest, immersing us in the particulars of a time, place, and social class, resisting the urge to comment on the unfairness and cruelty that stand between the characters and their desire for happiness even as it makes us sharply aware of them.
Adapted by Jennifer Schuur (Big Love) and Paolo Sorrentino (The Young Pope), and directed by Saverio Costanzo (In Treatment), the heart of the series is the fraught bond between Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo and Elena “Lenù” Greco, a couple of smart, strong-willed girls. They’re friends with each other, and at each other. Differences in opportunity stop them from competing on a level playing field and complicate their affection as they mature. Lenù (played as a child by Elisa Del Genio, and as an teenager by Margherita Mazzucco) is our narrator, starting in the present with her friend’s sudden disappearance, then flashing back to their childhood and adolescence. Lila (Ludovica Nasti and Gaia Girace) is positioned as an unsung genius who instinctively masters Italian and Latin, history and mathematics, despite growing up as the poor daughter of a shoemaker in a home that doesn’t value education. Lenù’s circumstances are dire, too, but she’s encouraged by an interventionist schoolteacher and by her dear papa; the latter agrees to pay for tutoring so she can take the admission test for middle school, an opportunity Lila will never have. The friends’ paths diverge, with Lenù literally as well as figuratively escaping the neighborhood (the seventh episode takes place mainly during a working vacation by the sea) while her friend stays behind, quietly honing her craft as a writer (in stories and letters that only Lenù sees).
The disparity in opportunity between Lila and Lenù stays at the forefront of the series’ mind as it guides us from the girls’ childhood through an adolescence marred by the machismo, sexism, and violence of Neapolitan slum life. Education in all its forms, but language in particular, serves as an emotional life preserver, but the girls still always seem to be half a breath from drowning. My Brilliant Friend works discussions of poetry, fiction, and mythology into its plotlines, showing how the arts give the heroines a framework for understanding their deprivation while leaving them keenly conscious that there’s only so much a book can do to ease suffering — especially in a man’s world that treats women as servants, prizes, and ideals. From childhood onward, Lila and Lenù are regularly complimented on their beauty and poise by women as well as men; as they age, this praise starts to seem constricting, then menacing — verbal boxes they’re fated to be packed into. They’re both pursued by suitors ranging from awkward to charming to menacing, and it’s always clear that, no matter what the young men might claim, they appreciate women more for what they represent than who they are. Only women see other women as full human beings — and not all of them do, internalized misogyny being what it is. The girls are often instructed to tamp down their spirits, sometimes even ordered to accept certain offers from men for the greater good of the tribe, because that’s what women do.
Lila’s older brother Rino (played as a teenager by Gennaro De Stefano) is one of the most visible casualties of machismo. He’s a skilled cobbler who’s determined to create a new type of men’s shoe, with his sister providing tough-love encouragement and quality control, and he often sticks up for Lila. But he’s also prideful and insecure and has a volcanic temper, and we spend much of the story worrying that his mouth will write a check that his fists can’t cash. The threat of violence is ever present. Early in the story, two groups of rival gangsters run the neighborhood, and when one gets taken out of the picture, things only get worse. As in the small-scaled, mid-century Italian Neorealist movies that seem to have served as partial inspiration — as well as sweeping Italian family melodramas by directors like Luchino Visconti (The Leopard) and Francis Coppola (The Godfather) — every public interaction and many private ones risk morphing into beatings, and murders. Unequally matched combatants mete out pain as public spectacle, a physical shaming that’s meant to show onlookers who the boss is and caution them never to cross him. This is true in the scenes of domestic violence as well: Men strike women in this story only after realizing that they can’t dominate them with language. Tenderness and lyricism give way to fear, sadness, and loss so frequently that this tale would become unbearable if the series didn’t make the violence seem petty, cruel, and awkward rather than glamorous. An early scene of the girls reading Little Women right before a man gets stomped sums up My Brilliant Friend’s juxtaposition of culture and savagery. The show’s aesthetic seems guided by the scene in the first Godfather where Sonny thrashes Carlo. We see violence from a distance, submerged by the frame line, or partly obscured by the people committing it, because it’s the reactions of onlookers — the mix of horror and indifference — that define Ferrante’s world.
An understated intimacy binds the series. My Brilliant Friend leans into the idea of memory as a series of discrete, recollected periods or moments, splitting the difference between serialized and self-contained storytelling, so that every episode functions as part of a whole and stands on its own as a complete statement. Although the filmmaking indulges the occasional (earned) flourish — notably in the series of dissolves that climaxes the fourth episode, and a nearly 360-degree pan in the seaside episode, drinking in natural splendors that Lenù is experiencing for the first time — this series is more interested in the expressions on people’s faces as they scrutinize each other, contemplate their circumstances, and figure out their next move. The casting is exceptional. Every face and body is credible as one that might actually have lived in that period. The performances are alert and sensitive without seeming studied. As teenaged Lila, Girace in particular is a standout: The shape of her face and the intensity of her gaze evoke a young Barbara Stanwyck, who often played women stuck in impossible circumstances, tried to make the best of it, and drew comfort from recognizing their own resilience even when others couldn’t see it. This is a late-breaking candidate for show of the year, a drama about the place where aspiration and reality intersect.