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The Brilliance of My Brilliant Friend

by Mackenzie Arnolds

photography courtesy of My Brilliant Friend Facebook

Set in 1950s Naples, My Brilliant Friend is an adaptation of the first in a series of four books by Italian author Elena Ferrante. Though branded the Neapolitan Novels, the series boasts a massive cosmopolitan fan base that includes the likes of Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, making it an attractive catch for media giant HBO. The television powerhouse partnered with Italian networks RAI and TIMvision to bring the book to life.

The show centers around two girls, Elena “Lenu” Greco and Raffella “Lila” Cerullo, as they struggle to escape the clutches of their violent, poverty-stricken neighborhood. Although it follows them from childhood to adolescence, it begins 60 years into the future, when Lenu receives a phone call from Lila’s son, who tells her that his mother has gone missing. Affected by the news, Lenu begins to furiously draft the story of their lives, taking herself and the audience back to a primary school classroom in Naples, Italy, where the tumultuous friendship that would shape the girls’ lives began.

Within the first ten minutes of the series, when Lila is called to the front of the class to demonstrate her ability to read and write—skills she taught herself—she is established as a child prodigy. A satisfying underdog tale seems to be unfolding, an expectation that My Brilliant Friend quickly shoots down as Lila’s parents refuse to send her to middle school—what’s the point, after all, in wasting money on something as fruitless as a girl’s education? Lenu’s parents are more open-minded, though, and allow her to move on to secondary school, a fact that Lila simultaneously resents and nurtures, as if she was an extension of Lenu herself. From then on, the girls are inexplicably linked, and it becomes clear that the series is, above all, propelled by their friendship.

To simply sum up My Brilliant Friend as a tale of female friendship, though, is a gross simplification of the bond that Lenu and Lila share. “I felt confusedly attracted to this bad girl,” Lenu says, explaining the strange magnetism that pulls the vastly different characters together in the first episode. Their relationship seems to be rooted in survival, as the girls recognize that they reinforce each other—even through feelings of jealousy, rage and resentment—in an environment that would otherwise tear them down.

Watching them interact is a refreshing departure from the happy-go-lucky whimsy that often characterizes female friendship in the media. When Lila throws Lenu’s doll down into the cellar of their neighborhood boogeyman, Don Achille, during one of their first encounters, Lenu throws hers in return, forcing them to confront their fears together. This solidifies the nature of their bond throughout the series, which plays like a savage tug of war between each girl’s desires and their shared will to resist the sexism, poverty and violence that ravages everyone around them.

One of the most satisfying aspects of My Brilliant Friend is that the intricacies of this relationship speak to the intricacies of the girls themselves. Complex female characters have, thankfully, become more common in television throughout the years, but Lila and Lenu fill the still-lacking category of complex adolescent—not to mention foreign and poor—female characters. And they do not disappoint. Their struggles as girls growing up in 1950s Italy are unique, but their struggles as girls are universal.

Lenu is polite and insecure, muted lest she offend. She feels a revulsion for her own body as she matures that is all too relatable, and struggles to come to terms with her sexuality, masking self-doubt behind her studies. Lila however, is dazzling. Rebellious, assertive and intelligent, it’s no wonder that Lenu so strongly wants to be like her. She radiates an unflinching ambition to escape her own destiny, defiantly staring down those that would try and stop her. Compounding her allure, Lila is also beautiful, and so must fend off the men that covet her in the same way that they covet sleek cars and shiny watches.

“I knew—perhaps I hoped—that no form could ever contain Lila, and that sooner or later she would break everything again,” Lenu observes, explaining why watching Lila throughout the series feels like holding your breath. With every action Lila takes you wonder whether her next step will finally free her from the clutches of her father, her admirers, poverty; or whether it will only cause them to tighten their grip. Lenu’s position as the narrator seeps so seamlessly into each frame of the show that it’s easy to view Lila the way that she does—as an all-powerful, otherworldly being. The disillusionment that comes about with the realization that Lila also has weaknesses provides a sort of self-revelation that is rare for television, as you recognize that you too demand something from the girl.

My Brilliant Friend subverts other expectation as well. It lacks the flashy violence, gore and sex that HBO’s viewers have come to expect from the network’s shows, yet each episode pulses with an undercurrent of aggression. You can’t help but brace yourself against the forces of 1950s Naples that strive to sink their claws into Lila and Lenu, who are the only ones that seem to see the cycle of violence, the rage that forever chains everyone to this city they were born in.

Indeed, the series almost presents Naples as a character in itself, and the cinematography pulls no punches in painting the city as the destitute place that it was in the 1950s. All of the greedy antagonists the girls collide with are simply products of the misery that it oozes. This misery is illustrated by the palette of muted greys, browns and blues that dominates the series. Only when Lenu ventures away from Naples while on vacation do vibrant, glittering scenes of the Italian coast appear.

Since its premiere, the show has become a darling among critics, yet for some strange reason, many TV watchers still haven’t experienced the magic that is My Brilliant Friend. Perhaps it’s because, unless you’re proficient in the Italian language, subtitles are a necessity. Or maybe it’s because stories about girls that don’t revolve around murder and sex still haven’t quite caught on in popular culture. Whatever the reason: go and watch the first episode. You’ll find yourself submerged in a tale as complex as it is universal, and soon realize that you don’t need to speak Italian to understand the forces that drive the story forward. Friendship, corruption, education, violence, poverty, hate, love and hope all connect and breathe life into the series with such vigor that, by the end of the last episode, you’ll refuse to believe that Lila and Lenu’s story ends there—and it doesn’t.

Casey Bloys, president of programming at HBO announced in December that My Brilliant Friend will be returning for a second season, stating, “we’re thrilled that Elena Ferrante’s epic story has resonated so powerfully with viewers and critics, and we look forward to the continuing journey of Elena and Lila.” The show is speculated to premiere towards the end of 2019, providing plenty of time to watch first season and avoid missing out on the inspiring, moving epic for a second time.

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