My Brilliant Friend
“Do you know who the plebs are?” Maestra Oliviero asks Elena in the middle of this second episode, while the two sit preparing for the middle-school exam. Elena offers the historical answer: “The people. The tribunes of the plebs are I Gracchi,” the Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, elected leaders who attempted to reclaim property from the moneyed classes at the height of the Roman Empire and restore it to the people. But Maestra is looking for a more relevant contemporary reply, and trying to make a point to Elena. Competition for resources is fierce, she’s implying, and if she wants to ascend out of the plebeian masses herself, there’s no real way to drag Lila up the ladder behind her. Eventually, she says it plainly: “Forget Cerullo and think of yourself.”
That idea — of how Elena is to treat her most intimate friend now that she’s intellectually bounding upwards — is the crux of Ferrante’s novel, and now, this adaptation. While the first episode was mostly foundational, this one fixates on the cord that tethers the two girls together and the ways that each of them push and pull it, drawing each other close and casting each other away. They’re bound by their utter understanding of the other’s circumstances — that beautiful, plaintive gaze at each other out of their apartments and across the courtyard cements that — but their trajectories are about to diverge. Ultimately, it’s a story about the most bitter type of jealousy: the kind we have for the people we love most.
The episode begins in solidarity, as the girls stand before Don Achille’s door, knocking to beg for their dolls back. Of course, Lila’s story about his black bag is a myth, a variation of the urban legend that’s told in countless neighborhoods about the cruel and crotchety old man who hoards every baseball that lands in his yard. But at the same time, Don Achille is a real threat — we’ve seen him toss Carmela’s father against a wall like a rag doll — and the girls have every reason to fear him.
The money he hands them (probably more money than either girl has ever held before) is the tie that binds them together. Even at 9 years old, both girls are determined to get out of their community, to harness their intellect and let it catapult them upwards. And so Lila’s idea — to use the money to buy a novel, read it, and then write their own — makes some sense (coming from a fourth-grader at least). As Maestra Olivieri explains to Signora Cerullo, Lila is a gifted storyteller; she reaches into “the pail filled with words” inside her head and assembles tales that impress even the teacher. Just as Little Women — another quasi-autobiographical novel about bright impoverished girls desperate to see the wider world — shot Louisa May Alcott to fame, the world of fiction lights up a path in front of Lila and Elena.
Their joy in the novel is almost tangible, and both actresses do an exceptional job of twitching with delight over the kinship to be found inside a novel’s pages. The moment they hand it off, when Lila asks Elena to hold onto it so her father doesn’t find it, is more profound than it first appears. It’s the last time they’ll share a vision for their futures.
According to Maestra Olivieri, Elena ought to cast herself outside the plebeian class. But the tension in the Greco and Cerullo houses over whether to send the girls to middle school — which will require school fees and books, and means lost income since they won’t be working — pushes both girls in the other direction. It’s difficult, with a contemporary mind-set, to see the Grecos and Cerullos as anything but cruel in their assessments of their daughters as uppity and above their stations for presuming to learn Latin and Greek. But education beyond primary school was the exception and not the norm for lower-income families in post-Fascist Italy, where some families (like Don Achille’s) harbored spoils from the war and other families used a bit of bone to flavor soup in lieu of actual meat. When Elena’s mother yelps, “Who do you think you are?” it’s the frustration of her own smothered life talking. And she makes an excellent point: Latin and Greek won’t keep their family of six well-fed.
The Grecos’ ultimate decision to send Elena to school will be the wedge between the girls. (That rare moment of familial happiness where they are all gathered around the table and Signor Greco is calling it a “holiday” for Elena reminds me of my mother’s recollection about the only joke she ever recalls her own Italian-American father making during her childhood. The memory is so vivid she still remembers the joke 60 years later.) For the Cerullos it isn’t so much a matter of financial impossibility, but rather clench-jawed stubbornness. During her meeting with the Maestra, Signora Cerullo insists that they can’t afford it, but really Lila’s father refuses to make it a possibility. To send Lila to middle school would admit that his own child might be smarter than him, better than him. Sweet Rino’s offer to pay her way from his wages is seen as mere manipulation.
Critics have made a big deal about the show’s authenticity in choosing to film in Italian (as if it could properly be done any other way). In this episode it’s especially apparent why. When Signora Cerullo leaves her meeting with Maestra Olivieri she offers her the more formal “arrivederci” to signal a polite but firm end to their conversation. And when Elena’s mother mocks her, asking, “Do I have to say it in proper Italian?” the question is meant to point out her snobbishness: the people of their dusty Neapolitan neighborhood speak a dialect of Italian to one another — only the educated use such “proper Italian.” (It’s worth pointing out, hopefully without inserting some snobbishness of my own, that much of the subtitled dialogue is stripped of its linguistic complexity in the translation from Italian to English.)
Despite their worldly aspirations, the girls have never left their small neighborhood. In Ferrante’s novel the journey to the sea is more of a rite of passage than it is here. Lila’s brother and his friends frequently make the long walk to swim in the summer, and the Sarratores and Gigliola have bragged about visiting the beach in the past. The girls embark more out of determination than on a whim, though Lila’s secret intention — to get Elena into so much trouble that her parents retract their permission for her to go to middle school — is just as obvious. (In the novel the girls also encounter a “fat man” who opens his pants and show them his penis, but I must admit I’m grateful that bit didn’t make it in.) It’s a rare day full of enjoyment for two 9-year-olds (it’s bitterly sad when Elena explains, “I had no responsibilities”), at least until Lila insists they turn back. In the novel Elena opines, “When I think of the pleasure of being free, I think of the start of that day … I felt joyfully open to the unknown.”
But afterward their world grows oddly smaller and they begin to drift apart. Lila’s illness is physical, to be sure, but also manifested by her misery at Elena leaving her behind to ready herself for the middle-school admissions test. (Elena’s line “It was as if one side of my body was always cold” is one of those perfect rare metaphors for loneliness.) Writing The Blue Fairy — a piece of fiction that has far more in common with Louisa May Alcott’s early, unsuccessful gothics than realist Little Women — is Lila’s attempt to maintain her equivalency with Elena. The same goes for her insistence that her arm doesn’t hurt, despite its fracture, after her father violently hurls her out the window.
Just before Carmela’s father is dragged away by the carabinieri (the Italian equivalent of a national police force, similar to the FBI) for Don Achille’s murder, the two girls sit face-to-face on a bench in the palazzo, Lila breathlessly spilling the details of the crime. He was wearing blue pajamas, she claims, old ones. “He had just opened the window for some fresh air,” she says, before someone crept up and stabbed him in the neck. It’s impossible for her (or anyone) to know these details. But as Elena explained about The Blue Fairy “you didn’t feel the artifice” of Lila’s words. The story is captivating and its teller was born to brew up narratives of her own.
Instead, as we know, Elena ends up the fiction writer. Lila’s jealousy, it seems, is well-founded.