As a young girl in the 1950s, my mother was convinced that her maternal grandparents hated one another. Immigrants from a small town in Calabria, Italy — the toe of the boot, just across the sea from Sicily — they learned only a smattering of English words after they landed in upstate Pennsylvania, and their discussions, in a rapid southern Italian dialect, always sounded ferocious and antagonistic. When she was older, she was startled to learn that they, in fact, didn’t have a particularly contentious relationship. This was just, she was told by her own mother, the way Italian people spoke to one another. Loudly, and vigorously, and without any soft edges. It’s a stereotype, she shrugged, for a reason.
The world of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend — set in Naples, but in the HBO version appearing more like a small, dryly crusted town strung out away from the city like a distant satellite — clamors and echoes with shrieks, bellows, and the sounds of violence. In the first episode alone, a man is beaten bloody in the street, a woman is thrown down a flight of stairs, and the same child is hit in the head with a rock and repeatedly smacked in the face. Family members shout to be heard; pots, pans — and, rather dangerously, an iron — are tossed from an open window; vendors yodel out their wares; children smack and jostle one another in tight school hallways. Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo’s loud, crowded lives are small and insulated, and they’re always seconds away from a tragedy around which the entire town will gather to gawp.
“All these people are fantastically enmeshed,” Joan Acocella explained in her New Yorker review of the first novel in Ferrante’s series, “They practically can’t walk to the corner without running into someone they’ve slept with or beaten up.” Life in Ferrante’s struggling post-war 1950s Italy is a struggle for dominance over domestic affairs — and the whole town is essentially one squabbling family.
Of course, Elena and Lila’s story has now been bent and revived by three sets of hands. Director Saverio Costanzo is adapting Elena Ferrante’s novel, inside of which a contemporary, older version of Elena Greco recounts the story (perhaps embellished or biased, we don’t know) of her and Lila’s childhoods. It’s an act of aggression. Lila has run away, literally cut herself out of her family’s photographs — she wants to disappear, although we aren’t sure why. Elena, a writer, whom we already know makes it out of their riotous neighborhood by the capacious, vaulted apartment she roams through, is determined to drag Lila’s story back into the light, to metaphorically paste her back into the family photos. “You wanted to cancel out the life you left behind,” she says in voice-over as she taps away at her keyboard, writing down every last memory she can muster.
Adapting My Brilliant Friend to the screen may be an exercise more foolish in intent than most page-to-TV leaps. The novels’ beauty is in their constrained expansiveness — like a brilliant sonnet, their scale is limited, but they cram in all the richness of a life’s worth of memories. And in this debut the show’s director already seems to have some trouble enlivening Ferrante’s tightly packed universe. (Lila and Elena’s fierce stares seem to take up at least 50 percent of the episode, although they’re only effective about a quarter of the time). This first episode establishes itself more like a play, with a cast of characters, each of whom is provided with a brief description, and a chorus — in this case, the gossiping, sometimes vindictive women leaning on their balcony railings into a shared courtyard, taking their small bits of pleasure where they can.
There are Lila and Elena and their families (in the novel, Elena’s father is a porter at the city hall and Lila’s is a cobbler). There’s Maestra Oliviero, the girls’ teacher, who has a contained feminist streak (“if we don’t start showing the boys now that you’re like them, better actually, they’ll crush you”) and true dedication to her students — the bright ones at least. There’s Don Achille, the loan shark whose shadow lurks over the whole first episode, and whose face we expect might come looming out of the doorway at the beginning of the second. He essentially runs the neighborhood — and his brutish older son makes sure even the little girls fall in line. The Solara family are Achille’s rivals; owners of the only bar in town — a relatively prosperous line of work — they can be seen observing him, and perhaps plotting to take him down. Inside the girls’ apartment buildings, which are dark, dank places, live the Cappucios, including Melina, the love-starved widow who may or may not be having an affair with Donato Sarratore upstairs.
The neighborhood politics — Melina’s screaming fit when the Sarratores move, the catfight (there’s no other word for it) in the stairwell, Carmela’s father’s losing battle with Don Achille — aren’t softened because we see them through children’s eyes. In fact, they’re almost augmented. When Don Achille plucks Carmela’s father from the back of church (during a funeral, no less) and beats him bloody outside, he picks him up and hurls him against a wall: the toss is so hard and so high that it’s more fitting of an “ogre of fairy-tales” than a mere man. It’s a rough world, and the parents of Ferrante’s invention (and perhaps her own childhood) see no reason to coddle.
The children, especially Lila, are frequently dirty and left to their own devices — there simply isn’t the time or inclination to fret over them when it takes so much work to bring is such little money. The boundaries that separate childhood and adulthood are fluid: children are sent to school only to master the basics of literacy and mathematics so that they might be of help to their parents. Even a classroom competition between the boys and girls is political — Lila and Elena understand that they’re not to beat Don Achille’s son, but cannot resist living up to Maestra Oliviero’s mandate to show up the boys.
Lila and Elena’s intellects mark them as distinct from their peers, and as competitors for each other. As Elena so clearly points out in her voice-overs (which are an odd choice for such a playful narrative), it’s Lila’s brilliance (ahem) that draws her in. And it’s Lila’s no-bullshit attitude — written beautifully across the face of the perfectly cast Ludovica Nasti — that cements their friendship. Elena encourages softness and reason in Lila, and Lila propels Elena into demanding more from life.
The two young actresses — both entirely inexperienced — must carry this episode on their own, and at times, like the scene in which they face off against the jealous rock-throwing boys, their steel backbones prop them up as deliciously fierce. But director Saverio Costanzo’s mandate that Elena remain “out of focus” at times throws the balance so wildly in Lila’s favor that the essence of the story — the girls’ deep abiding friendship that we know has gone off the rails in late adulthood — is lost.
Where Costanzo’s direction shines is in the complicated gender dynamics that color Lila and Elena’s perceptions of themselves as girls who will necessarily become women in a man’s world. Leaving school, the girls primly line up and quietly glide down the halls as if they’ve been instructed in female propriety. The boys, on the other hand, curse and push, undisputed owners of the schoolyard. When Don Achille’s son beats Lila about the face for allegedly showing up his brother in the school competition, they’re playing out a far more complex scenario than they know. Lila is marking herself as a troublesome woman, and Achille’s son smacks and degrades a tiny young girl without a lick of shame or doubt.
And in the episode’s most telling scene, the girls stand in their shared courtyard watching Melina lean out the window and bat at Signora Cappucio’s fresh white laundry with a greased broom handle. At first it’s comical, two women shouting and cursing one another over childish pranks — and the chorus of other neighborhood women leaning out their windows only adds to the hijinks. But the girls’ faces grow dimmer and more alarmed as the fighting escalates, and Elena eventually faints after she sees Melina tumble down the stairs at Signora Capuccio’s hands. Lila and Elena are, essentially, being inducted into the community of women — and there is no safety there from the violence and competition for survival that lurks in the church, and the schoolyard, and their friendship.