Every time Elena is greeted by an older man with whom she’s not well acquainted, something weird happens. “She’s so beautiful,” the man will exclaim, in a tone that sounds awfully similar to one he might use to describe a nice cut of meat at the butcher shop. All the men she encounters on her journey into Naples’s center with her father begin that way — and while (I guess) it’s complimentary, and Elena is meant to be a pretty girl, it’s often the only comment they’ll make. They don’t say that it’s a pleasure to meet her, or ask her how she’s enjoying her tour of the city. Her job, apparently, is to be decorative, and she’s a blessing to her father if she’s fulfilling that role. The 1950s weren’t exactly the age of gender-equality enlightenment, but still.
The disproportionate dynamics between women and men color everything in this fourth episode, as Lila and Elena tip past the cusp of adolescence and slide toward womanhood and all that it (at times, unfortunately) entails. It is, like everything, a competition between the two girls, and yet both act at times like begrudging participants, with Lila dedicated to mastering teenage life and romantic relationships the way she mastered Latin, and Elena at first tiptoeing and then darting ahead, looking for a boyfriend only so she can announce the news to Lila.
Bookended by two parties, it feels like the least glitzy, most thoughtful episode of Gossip Girl ever made.
The first party, at Gigliola’s family’s apartment, brings with it all the anxiety of any early-teenage gathering. The girls have obviously put extra time into their appearance: both have their hair partly down, and are wearing somewhat fancier dresses than normal. At first the partygoers bunch up like they’re magnetically drawn to the people with whom they already spend their time. But then, when the radio is cranked up and someone joyfully calls out “Rock ’n’ roll!” girls and boys begin pairing up, slowly growing more daring as they attempt more and more complicated dance moves. Everyone has been practicing in secret, and honestly, the party looks pretty fun.
(I was repeatedly hit with a bizarre sense of déjà vu as the party scene unfolded since this exact scenario — a neighborhood party with dancing — was the exact type of situation that we’d read about in our primers in freshman-year Italian class: “Pasquale drinks a glass of punch.” “Lila does not want to dance.” “The party grows very full!”)
It’s one of the only moments that we’ve seen Lila really let go, as she twirls and steps with Pasquale, a big grin sliding onto her face. Lila obsessed about learning to dance — it’s yet another skill she feels required to grasp — but the joy of feeling her body sway overrides the rote moves she must have planned in her mind. It’s an unusual moment of unleashed pleasure in My Brilliant Friend, and it serves as a fascinating reminder of how distinct their Neapolitan culture is from ours; neither Lila nor Elena is pursuing happiness, and it’s continually surprising to them when it comes their way.
But the sight of Lila’s moving hips is met by a grotesque kind of hunger from the men on the fringes of the party. The camera takes its time sliding across their faces so we see every repressed impulse in their faces, how they want to grab Lila or kiss her or slide up behind her. It’s Marcello Solara who ultimately does, but only after he asks the Spagnuolos to kick out the Carraccis (Don Achille’s family). The Spagnuolos have no real choice in the matter (it’s not entirely clear in the show, but in the novel Signor Spagnuolo works at the Solaras’ bar as their pastry maker), and smart camerawork flashes around the room, lending the scene a menacing Jets vs. Sharks vibe.
At first Lila can’t see the gap behind her as she rocks her body back and forth. But then, very subtly, she does, and she moves from obliviousness to acquiescence, letting Marcello touch her and slide in rhythm. She disdains the Solaras — it wasn’t long ago that he snatched at Elena’s wrist on the street — but there’s an allure to Marcello’s power and good looks. When he grabs her, however, and tells her to stay after Pasquale says it’s time to leave, she resists. Her signature defiance won’t let any man tell her what to do.
Pasquale, who is very much the Communist he claimed to be to Elena, loathes the Solaras on a primal level. In the aftermath of World War II, after Fascist Mussolini’s body was hung up above the gas station in a small Italian town and beaten with hammers and fists, the move to become a republic helped urge on an economic boom, which the south, including Naples, was largely left out of. Thugs like the Solaras, who entertained mafiosos and got rich off the black-market goods that ordinary Italians could barely afford, were the Communists’ nemeses. Their feud, fueled by Don Achille’s murder and Pasquale’s father’s imprisonment for it, make the political even more personal.
But the tension of the Spagnuolo’s party is nothing compared to the testosterone-inflamed fireworks battle that ends in gunshots. It’s a struggle over primacy, not just a claim on Lila or a bid to outdo one another. Whoever shoots off more fireworks (I’ll just let that phallic metaphor speak for itself) controls the neighborhood. Unable to win fairly, the Solaras raise the stakes of the game, aiming directly for the Carraccis’ rooftop. Even after joining forces, the Carraccis and the riffraff (Pasquale, Enzo, Rino) are brought to their knees. Rino especially.
There are tamer, though no less high-stakes, skirmishes, too. Elena wages an internal debate over whether to pursue Nino Sarratore, the poet’s son who asked her to be his girlfriend in elementary school and then moved away with his disgraced family. He’s shown back up in her life, now tousle-headed, bespectacled, and way better looking than any teenage boy has a right to be. Seemingly every boy is interested in Lila, including Stefano Carracci and Pasquale, but boyfriends are out of her field of vision. Almost a decade later she is still scheming a way to get rich, and presumably leave the neighborhood behind. The shoe she works on with Rino is the star of her latest plot, and the seemingly minor waterproofing test she demands is indicative of just how badly she wants to cross that line between just making it and making it.
The first scenes, however, indicate just how small Lila’s world still is. Presumably she still hasn’t left the neighborhood. She hasn’t seen the sea. She’s taught herself the Greek alphabet and furiously paces herself against Elena, but with no practical outlet for her intellect, she stays tied to the shoe shop, hatching get-rich-quick schemes that rely on her brother’s talent. We know that same brother will call Elena 50 years later, explaining that Lila has gone missing. Is that because she has essentially never left the neighborhood?
Elena’s tour of Naples is practical — she needs to learn the bus route she’ll take every day to the high school — but it’s also a rare treat to spend time away from the neighborhood and alone with one parent. As she explains in the novel, “We spent the entire day together, the only one in our lives … He dedicated himself to me, as if he wanted to communicate in a few hours everything useful he had learned in the course of his existence.” She says she felt “loved, coddled.”
But when he brings her to the town hall where he works and introduces her to a very important judge who happens to be rushing by, the judge dismisses Signor Greco with a wave of his hand. The judge is too busy for the likes of a porter — especially for a porter’s daughter. But that doesn’t stop Signor Greco and his colleagues from singing the judge’s praises and prattling on about how significant a figure he is.
Yes, Elena finally sees the sea that day. She feels “dazed by the light.” But perhaps the more salient experience of the day will be seeing her father’s station in life so clearly. He may ride the bus to the heart of the city every day, he may walk past the great buildings of the ages, but his position is still lowly. Elena wants more.