Judy Berman – Nov 13, 2018
The centerpiece of My Brilliant Friend, the first of pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante’s four beloved Neapolitan novels, is a New Year’s Eve fireworks display. Narrator Elena “Lenù” Greco and her best friend, Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo, are teens ringing in 1959 at a gathering that has reunited feuding clans in a show of neighborhood solidarity. But a rare moment of wonder in this slum at the edge of Naples devolves into a battle with the local mob family. Lila describes the panic attack that overtakes her that night as an experience of “dissolving margins,” an implosion of her moral universe. Elation gives way to angst as pyrotechnics overload the characters’ senses, culminating in a symbolic end to Lila’s childhood.
Translating a scene this layered into a visual medium couldn’t have been easy for the makers of My Brilliant Friend, the first of four planned miniseries based on Ferrante’s novels, which premieres Nov. 18 on HBO. Yet the scene retains its power onscreen. At first, director Saverio Costanzo keeps a tight focus on the terrace where Lila and Lenù enjoy the fireworks. Then the frame widens and the mobsters come into view. Lila turns sweaty and grim. Lenù watches, helpless. Faces blur into one another. Indeed, margins dissolve.
Costanzo and the show’s impressive executive producers, Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino (The Young Pope) and Hannibal alum Jennifer Schuur, seem to get that the scene is the linchpin of the book. And their fidelity to Ferrante’s vision is matched by their commitment to verisimilitude. In this co-production with Italian public television that was filmed in the Neapolitan dialect, the miniseries’ young actors–cast in an open call–don’t perform their roles so much as inhabit them. Narration highlights Ferrante’s keenest observations. But it is Costanzo’s light hand with Ferrante’s story and motifs that makes this a thrilling adaptation.