Miranda Popkey – Dec 10, 2018
In most respects, HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is merely serviceable. It’s a re-creation, competent and faithful, of the events described in the first novel of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. The performances are convincing, the movement from scene to scene is pleasurable, the music is complementary but unobtrusive, and the set decoration is impeccable. One expects, from a production branded with the HBO logo, nothing less. And yet, in one respect, the series is in fact brilliant. Take it from this terrone: they got the faces right.
My Brilliant Friend is an account, painstaking and digressive and emotionally devastating, of the friendship between Elena (Lenù) Greco and Raffaella (Lila) Cerullo between the ages of six and sixteen. (The adult Lenù, now a successful writer in late middle age, narrates all four novels.) But it is also a portrait, universalizing precisely because of its attention to particulars, of small-town Southern Italy in the years after World War II, years during which economic privation and casual violence were the rule, years during which (very recently ex-) Fascists retained local power, their authority, like their comparative wealth, unquestioned.
I say comparative wealth because even those who had money had little, and what they could buy with it was meager: a small convertible, a single television. My Brilliant Friend ends in the year 1960, midway through the Italian “economic miracle”—il boom—that helped modernize the then-rural South. But the effects of Northern industrialization seem to have barely trickled down to Ferrante’s Neapolitan suburb; the poverty, the miseria, is still everywhere.