My Brilliant Friend
When we left Lila and Elena’s Neapolitan quartiere last episode, gunshots were flying over the rooftops, New Year’s partygoers were ducking into the stairwell, and Rino was cursing the Solaras with everything he had. Va fangool! (Only translate if you appreciate anal insults.)
Rino’s fury is a defining feature of this episode, too — a slow and slightly clunky hour so devoted to Rino and Lila’s beloved scarpe that I kept half-expecting them to pull out a pair of magnificently glittered and feathered Louboutins instead of the staid (elasticized?) leather walking loafers they fabricated. Like the shoes, Rino’s fate is up in the air. Will he stay at his father’s shop and fulfill his apprenticeship? Break out on his own to start a shoe company that caters to the modern Solaran man? End up in prison if he can’t keep his hands to himself? Okay, probably not the latter, but that temper and fury aren’t leading anywhere good.
It’s an inherited trait, of course — Signor Cerullo is just as nasty and quick to the draw as Rino. (Don’t forget that he threw a 9-year-old Lila out the window in the midst of an argument.) Most of his anger is bravado: He was furious then that Lila dared oppose him, and now he’s terrified that Rino, who is supposed to work at his father’s knee for decades, learning his craft and then carrying on the family business, may actually succeed on his own. With that said, his cruelty over the shoes is legendary.
The Befana (a Santa/witch hybrid who visits children the day before the Epiphany, a widely celebrated national holiday in Italy, and brings them coal if they’ve been naughty or sweets and small gifts if they’ve been good) must have brought Rino a set of coglioni to work up the nerve to show his father the shoes. And at first, his reaction is promising. They’re “sturdy,” Signor Cerullo says. “Light … comfortable.” And then, in a move straight out of my own grandfather’s playbook, he takes them off and hurls the shoes at Rino. He clearly doesn’t hate the actual shoes — if they were uncomfortable or shoddy he would have lambasted his son for subpar work. He hates the idea of the shoes, of Rino wasting time and resources on a gamble. His son, he fears, is growing uppity, of wanting more than his station in life allots.
All of which infects Rino, bleeding over into his slouching, tense stroll through downtown Naples on the ice cream excursion. He’s primed to implode.
Lila, too, is ready for a fight that evening. Their father’s outburst hasn’t reunited the siblings as conspirators, although on the surface their resentment hovers below simmering. The novel makes it a bit more clear why Lila is so determined that they should walk through Via Chiaia, a street in downtown Naples spotted with fancy shops and populated by wealthier patrons. “We turned and saw the Solaras’s 1100 [their car],” Elena narrates. “ … More than anything, I felt bitterness. That image of power had passed in a flash, four young people in a car — that was the right way to leave the neighborhood and have fun. Ours was the wrong way: on foot, in shabby old clothes, penniless.”
It’s almost as if Lila is determined to place herself among the rich, to walk next to them and send a silent signal that she is just as deserving of the beautiful street, the televisions in the shop windows, the gaily laughing couple with glasses of Prosecco and no piles of laundry or screaming, dirty children awaiting them at home. And it’s notably Lila who mocks the “mannequins” first, swaying her hips from side to side in a pantomime of a sexy swagger. Lila and her friends have dressed up, too — a wide shot shows that all three girls wear kitten-heeled shoes — but the difference, as Elena offers in the novel, is “humiliating.” The women “were absolutely different from us. They seemed to have breathed another air, to have eaten other food, to have dressed on some other planet, to have learned to walk on wisps of wind.”
The nasty asides (“Would you ever wear that dress?” “Not if you paid me.”) are such obvious manifestations of jealousy that it’s almost uncomfortable to watch. Lila’s intellect has been a curse for her — she’s brilliant enough to know she could make a success of her life, if only she had the opportunity. Without the promise of the shoes, she doesn’t have a pathway out of their quartiere.
The Cerullo siblings make no secret of how desperately they want to get rich, and how repulsive they find those who already have money. So when a young Neapolitan dandy saunters by, donning a white tennis sweater and straw boater cap that makes him look like an extra in Brideshead Revisited’s Oxbridge scenes, Rino calls out, well within the dandy’s hearing, that there’s a place he’d like to put that hat (ahem, va fungool), well knowing that it might instigate a fight.
Of course, he can’t anticipate that there is a whole crew of off-duty tennis fops lurking around the corner, waiting to chase him and Pasquale through a piazza ands beat them within an inch of their lives. And none of them (or, presumably, any of you viewers out there) expect a deus ex machina in the form of the Solaras, who notably have tire irons tucked away in their car in case of a flat, or a rumble.
While the Solaras’ rescue does add an unexpected kink to the neighborhood dynamics, after almost five episodes of the same infighting, there’s a fatigue setting in — with Elena’s world opening up around her, the continual retreat back into tired local feuds can feel as small-fry to the viewer as they do to her. Luckily, Lila’s love life offers a sad/delicious new twist.
The two men who offer her “declarations of love” are as different as possible. Pasquale is a bricklayer, with a fine film of dust often settled onto his curls, and an ardent Communist. A future with him would look strikingly similar to Lila’s parents’ lives. They’d never leave the quartiere, their children would grow up among the same families, money would be tight. And she doesn’t love him. Marcello, with his sleek little car and polished good looks, she loathes, and with good reason. His almost-proposal is also a bribe, with the promise of a “three-diamond ring” and the prospect of a life of comfort and ease. Like a Gaston-in-training Marcello assumes that Lila will say yes because no woman could say no. And, creep that he is, he takes her refusal ( a very clear “I’ll never get engaged to you because you’re an animal”) as an invitation to continue courting her via her family.
Marcello practically drips with slime, but he’s Rino and Signor Cerullo’s golden ticket, and even if they have to trap Lila into a marriage that will crush her spirit and ruin her life, they’ll do it. That’s something I really appreciate about My Brilliant Friend, the way it casts all men as villains in certain moments of their life, and doesn’t shy away from attaching connective tissue between a brutish sexual assailant like Marcello and a frustrated but decent man like Rino. They’re all willing to gamble with women as their chips. Without even a hint of irony Signor Cerullo encourages Lila to accept Marcello’s forthcoming proposal “for the family.” Even her mother, the docile Nunzia who wails miserably when her family argues, tells Lila, “You need to think about your life, but about us, too.”
As the narrator, Elena frequently slides up against the proverbial wall, turning practically transparent in her attempt to tell Lila’s story. In this episode, even as she accomplishes so much, her own life lurks along under Lila’s shadow.
But now, for an entire summer, she’ll be alone — and alone with her great love, the sea. A retreat to Ischia, less than two hours away by ferry but — especially in the 1950s and for a girl like Elena — an entirely different planet, will finally put Elena back at the center of her own story.