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HBO Brings Elena Ferante's 'My Brilliant Friend' to Miniseries
November 18, 2018  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment
 

Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels have tens of millions of fans, and HBO’s adaption of the first one, My Brilliant Friend, reminds us why.

My Brilliant Friend, an eight-part series that premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, takes us back to the start of a lifelong friendship between Elena Greco (played as a young girl by Elisa Del Genio) and Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo (played as a young girl by Ludovica Nasti).

It’s an extended coming-of-age story rooted in working-class Naples some 50 years ago. The dialogue is in Italian with English subtitles, and while often that’s a barrier for English-speaking audiences, in this case, it would be more jarring if these girls seemed to be speaking English.

Ferrante’s central themes, played out in the lives of Elena and Lila, may seem commonplace and conventional: that we are irrevocably shaped by the places and the people with whom we grew up, that sometimes we don’t enable or even wish the best for our friends.

Framing these and other themes through the lives of two smart, determined and at times flawed girls/women reinforces them in ways that are as convincing as they are at times uncomfortable.

Elena, the narrator of the novels and also the primary voice in the TV adaptation, opens the story by saying that she was the smartest kid in the class until Lila showed up.

Lila also quickly establishes herself as stubborn and maddening. But what’s taken by most of the other kids for aloofness or simple weirdness turns out to be both academic and psychological intelligence.

Before she starts school, she has taught herself to read and write. When gender-segregated classes are gathered for a boy-vs.-girl academic competition, some of Lila’s answer or non-answers are calculated messages to one of the boys on the other team.

Elena already has a circle of friends, who talk about tween and early-teen stuff like cute boys. She’s not sure why she’s drawn to the outlier Lila, except that in some way she seems to sense Lila might be more interesting.

At first, she doesn’t consciously think Lila might know a better way out of the constricted lives for which girls were designated in the Naples of that time. That comes later.

In their early days together, Lila takes Elena out of what would decades later have been called her comfort zone. That includes standing up to Don Achille (Antonio Pennarella), the thug who controls the neighborhood. While Don Achille is known to have ruined lives, the culture of the insular neighborhood allows for no remedies.

This Naples brooks disturbing violence, and being a young girl gives you no immunity card from neighborhood bullies.

Del Genio and Nasti play Elena and Lila, well, brilliantly. We see residual instincts of youth at the same time we understand they have had to grow up too fast. It’s that people-and-places thing.

Some of their many neighbors seem one-dimensional, but with a reason. We won’t have time to get to know all of them individually, but we soon understand that collectively they form a chorus, the theme music of these girls’ lives. 

As episodes roll along – they air on Sundays and Mondays for the next four weeks – we’ll hear other choruses. Many more, in fact, since all four of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels will be made into eight-episode series.

Elena and Lila stay in each others’ lives, and while there are stretches when things get less difficult for a spell, they never get flat-out easy. The number of readers and now viewers who know that feeling accounts for the popularity of Ferrante’s story.

 
 
 
 
 
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1 Comments
 
 
Angela
Oh boy, I'm torn! Typically I would read the novels before watching a movie or series about the same thing....But I already had my mind and heart set on watching this before I knew that the story was in book form first. (Another reviewer neglected to mention the novels.)
Either way this looks fantastic (I saw a preview) and sounds as good. Thanks for helping to pique my interest even more!
Nov 19, 2018   |  Reply
 
Angela
One episode in, I wasn't sure what to think but by the end of the second episode I was all in. I'm a sucker for character driven shows like this. Especially when they're in a different time and place. My brilliant Friend has me mesmerized. (Books come next)
Nov 21, 2018
 
 
 
 
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