Matt Brennan – Dec 5, 2018
In the eyes of a child, still learning to see—or the memories of a grown woman, still fighting to see differently—the tenement’s warring factions are as important as the mafioso at the funeral Mass, or the shooting of fireworks on a Neapolitan rooftop. So it is in My Brilliant Friend’s most striking sequence, set in an apartment block’s dusty courtyard. As our narrator, Lenù (Margherita Mazzucco), and her co-conspirator/co-protagonist, Lila (Ludovica Nasti), look on, Lidia Sarratore and her husband’s mad mistress, Melina Cappuccio, perform their private drama for the groundlings below. The neighbors gossip and snipe from balconies strung with fresh laundry, and between cuts, the camera turns, following their voices; occasionally, the image returns to the girls on the street clutching their dolls, heads swiveling to hear the chorus. By the time the dispute erupts in a brutal staircase fight, its chaos of pleas, insults, and awful blows finally causing Lenù to faint, director Saverio Costanzo has constructed a sequence worthy of Rear Window: Elena Greco is our L.B. Jefferies, her eyes our telephoto lens.
Unsurprisingly, the response to HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s sublime novel, the first of four in her “Neapolitan cycle,” has been rather muted. After all, the lives of two girls in midcentury Naples, poor strivers hoping to escape the fates of Lidia, Melina, their maestra, their mothers, are not the raw materials of the Internet’s next obsession. Even critics’ largely positive reception of the series reads as restrained, often reluctant, whether born of ardor for Ferrante’s writing or an exceedingly narrow definition of “enthralling” direction: In the most telling of the “favorable” reviews I consulted, a Russian nesting doll of barbed criticism and faint praise, The New Yorker’s Troy Patterson describes the “humble tenderness” “beneath the show’s heavy coats of operatic varnish and prestige-TV enamel,” like an archeologist dusting off bones at Pompeii.