by Alan Sepinwall
HBO’s gorgeous limited series based on Italian author Elena Ferrante’s acclaimed book follows a passionate and challenging friendship to searing effect
The title character of HBO’s My Brilliant Friend is Lila Cerullo, a shoemaker’s daughter in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples in the Fifties. Defying all odds of both nature and nurture, she is a prodigy who masters whatever task she sets her mind to, usually without any outside instruction. As an elementary schooler, she reads Little Women and is inspired to write her own novel. Best friend Elena “Lenu” Greco reads it and is amazed by how naturally Lila articulates all her points.
The adult Elena, who narrates the series, will say of Lila’s book, simply, “It was special.”
So is My Brilliant Friend (it debuts Sunday; I’ve seen six of eight episodes, all in Italian with English subtitles), which roughly covers the events of the book of the same name by Elena Ferrante, the first in her quartet of novels about the long and complicated friendship between Lila and Lenu.
Lenu (played as a little girl by Elisa Del Genio, then as a teenager by Margherita Mazzucco) is simultaneously worshipful and jealous of Lila (played first by Ludovica Nasti, then by Gaia Girace), who is everything Lenu tries to be, only better. Lenu is pretty; Lila is striking, and there’s a sense that any boy who shows interest in the former is only using her to get to the latter. Lenu is smart; Lila is a genius. When the local library gives out prizes to the residents who have checked out the most books, Lenu finishes in fifth place; the top four spots all go to Lila, who has borrowed books under both her own name and her relatives’. Lenu is only as brave as Lila’s presence allows her to be. When they are apart for long stretches, Lenu seems like she is being slowly starved of oxygen, and it’s only when she is back in her friend’s company that she can breathe and thrive again. But that rare air comes with the price of making Lenu feel like she can never be more than second-best.
This is very complicated, subtle emotional territory to explore. But the TV adaptation — directed by Saverio Costanzo, who wrote it with Francesco Piccolo, Laura Paolucci and Ferrante herself — covers the material with beauty and grace. The creative team understands first and foremost that the two girls are products of a specific post-war time and place, and focuses as much on building out that world as on establishing the uneven power dynamics of the central relationship. The neighborhood exists as an ecosystem unto itself, and the series explores and establishes every nook and cranny of the place. It finds unexpected beauty in all the browns and grays, and makes the area seem so disconnected from the rest of the world that it’s startling when later episodes venture out into Naples proper, or to the gorgeous island of Ischia, where the teenage Lenu spends a summer away from Lila.