Photo: Eduardo Castaldo/HBO
Finally, the sun! For five long episodes Elena’s skin appeared naturally pallid — like a life spent in a dusty Neapolitan apartment complex, head stuck in a book, was only coincidental to her face’s grayish tinge and the slashes of red under her eyes. But, if you’ll pardon about a dozen fashion-magazine cliches, Elena’s new tan gives her a fresh-faced glow. Her eyes suddenly pop. Her pimple-bedeviled skin clears right up. She’s really nailing that whole no-makeup makeup look.
The charm of Ischia is evident from the first moments we see it. It’s a place that was designed to take up residence on bucket lists. Towering stone houses are built right into the cliffs. Water laps right up against the streets leading to the port. Seemingly every window offers a view of the azure Mediterranean, and if there’s ever crappy weather, well, it’s taken its own vacation. There are already Elena Ferrante tours that circle through the island; after the TV series, they should expect a boom.
But the biggest change to Elena during her summer with the sweet, charming Nella — a woman who embodies so many of my own Italian nonna’s characteristics that I wanted to reach through the screen and wrap my arms around her bright, florid smock of a housedress — isn’t simply brought on by the sun. The sun surely shines just as frequently on Naples, which is just a short ferry-ride away from Ischia. It’s the independence, the remove from the grubby halls of her apartment building and the vicious neighborhood feuds, the distance from her mother’s looming presence and, especially, Lila’s towering brilliance and magnetism. It’s apparent from the first moments (can you imagine most 14-year-olds today being permitted to leave their hometown for the first time ever, alone, and make their way to a stranger’s house?) as she climbs the hill to Nella’s pensione, suitcase in hand, that Ischia will work as a tonic on Elena’s young but harried nerves.
The job is, as summers jobs go, a delight, especially considering the perks. She makes breakfast for Nella and the guests, cleans up, and then helps with dinner dishes. The entire afternoon is hers to do with as she pleases.
Of course, at first that means letters to Lila — long, “writerly” ones we’re meant to assume, full of forced jollity that walks a fine line between inciting Lila’s jealousy and just plain pissing her off. Yet Lila never writes back, not a single letter, putting Elena in the unenviable position of a teenage girl desperately in thrall to a friend who apparently thinks of her only intermittently. It’s a sad but universal predicament to cling to a friend who only occasionally tosses the crumbs of kinship your way.
“Her silence,” Elena narrates, “illustrated that my life was splendid but low on events.” Which is true. At least for the first part of the summer.
The real moment of change takes place in the gorgeously filmed and acted scene of Elena’s first (in memory) walk into the sea. Egged on by Nella to put down her pen and put on her swimsuit (in the book it’s made clear that her mother sewed the bathing suit herself in only two days, and it’s more shamefully constructed than it appears here) Elena wanders down onto the sand and finally baptizes her new, freer self. Instinctively she begins to swim, just as her mother assured her she could; it’s confirmation that her mother loves her, in a way, to know that her mother once took her to the seaside for her health, that they spent a few moments of joy together. That joy is now manifest in the way Elena takes a tentative, kitten-like lick of her salty arm, bunching her mouth into a small smile of unmitigated bliss. It’s really a stellar moment of television.
The episode, in its entirety, is vicious in how adeptly it gives Elena what she’s always wanted — the chance to read Maupassant on the beach next to a brainy boy who just might quietly adore her — and then rips it all from her, as if reminding her that poor girls from backwater Naples don’t get tropical life-sabbaticals without karmically paying for them.
Let’s be clear: Francesco Serpico, the young actor who plays teenage Nino Sarratore, is a newer, maybe even shinier iteration of the follically blessed Timothée Chalamet. The full, bushy brows. The long, lanky frame. The tousled dark hair. With the addition of some charming tortoiseshell glasses to signal his bookish intellect, Elena has every good reason to fall for the boy whose advances she spurned at 9 years old. His own dancing around their relationship, at first avoiding even naming her, and then at the pier letting slip that he recalls every facet of their childhood crush, is yet another lure for Elena. After she’s followed his dark head out of school so many days, their casual conversation about The Brothers Karamazov (an on-the-nose reference to dark familial relationships), followed by an eventual kiss (and “I thought we’d get engaged and be together forever”), must feel like a form of dark magic, willing the boy she admires, and then is “content to love” right to her very own beach.
Donato Sarratore practices his own form of charming magic on Nella, and his wife, and his small children, and then Elena, too. “He’s a real gentleman,” Nella crows before the Sarratores arrive for their summer holiday. And, to all appearances, he is every inch the charming, dutiful, romantic husband, father, and guest. The comparison is especially stark when you consider him against the other fathers Elena knows — her own, Lila’s, Ada’s. While mildly encouraging, Signor Greco doesn’t muse over philosophy or poetry with his children and he certainly doesn’t joke with them around a sunshine-splashed table by the sea. Lila’s father is hardworking but a notorious brute. Ada’s is in prison. But Donato is an intellectual and a romantic. He’s attentive to Elena, correcting her swimming strokes, telling her how much he admires her for continuing her schooling — she who has always struggled to stand out compared to Lila. It’s no surprise that she admires him.
He’s also a doppelganger for his son (kudos again to the casting director); they share the same long, insect-like limbs, though Donato’s facial features have grown more exaggerated with age. Which makes the comparison between them all the more stark in the two scenes in which each of the Sarratore men, clothed only in their underwear, visits Elena on her kitchen Murphy bed. Nino sweetly tucks her in, turns out her light, gently cares for even her book. Donato, whom we expect to offer some fatherly advice to Elena after she’s announced that she’s leaving, instead turns her bed into the site of a tragedy, emotionally pinning her down and kissing her as if they’re lovers. The scene is profoundly disturbing in its length — Donato keeps sliding his tongue over her mouth and eventually reaches down to her underwear, stroking at it and making me cover my eyes as if this were a horror series. The emotional implications of this one slimy moment will most likely haunt Elena forever. Nino left her a bookmark, Donato left her with trauma.
Back at home, Lila is handling an assault on her own emotional (heck, physical, intellectual, etc.) freedom in the form of her forced engagement to Marcello Solara, whose hair contains an ever-increasing amount of grease as the season goes on. The world of the neighborhood — its colors especially — feels ugly and cramped after the scenes on Ischia. As Marcello weasels his way further and further into the Cerullo family, via chocolates and lavish attention, Lila grows more and more muted. The gift of the television (and the fantastic scene of the whole neighborhood gathered around it) moves Lila to offer a smile, but not herself.
Lila is too young to drink the spumante at her own engagement ceremony. Elena celebrates her 15th birthday the same night she’s accosted by a middle-aged man who clearly doesn’t see the relationship as inappropriate. They’re young girls, but patriarchal oppression is already holding them in place.
“I thought of the neighborhood as a vortex and any attempt to climb out was delusional,” Elena says, and with good reason.