Justin Davidson – Dec 4, 2018
Italy is a 19th-century invention unified by an official language that, until the 20th century, most Italians didn’t speak. Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first of the four volumes of her Neopolitan Novels, takes place on the outskirts of Naples, in a neighborhood isolated by dialect as well as by poverty. Ferrante avoids transcribing the speech patterns of the street, writing out everything in proper Italian and inserting a clause to specify whether the speaker is using Neapolitan dialect or not. This saves the reader from having to struggle through laboriously rendered, potentially offensive slang à la Huckleberry Finn, and it also makes it impossible to forget how far the narrator, Elena Greco, has traveled, from her days as a postwar urchin to the heights of literary respectability.
In the HBO adaptation of My Brilliant Friend, director Saverio Costanzo addresses the problem in a completely different fashion: by casting local kids, filming in Neapolitan, and providing Italian subtitles that viewers can fool themselves into thinking they could really do without. Elena’s trajectory is the story of a woman changing her speech, and with it the trammels of class, family, brutality, and loyalty. Costanzo sets the parameters in the opening scene, set in the present, when an iPhone buzzes on Elena’s bedside table. Sleepy and startled, she answers in educated Italian, with a hyper-proper “Pronto?” At the other end of the line is a young voice from her old life; the son of her childhood friend informs her in thick Neapolitan that Lila has disappeared: “Mammà ‘nzè tròve cchiù.” She understands, but her peers wouldn’t, not without subtitles.