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August 30, 2018 at 9:22 pm #1202620408
I’m definitely looking forward to this. I hope despite it being in Italian that it catches on with people.November 18, 2018 at 8:18 am #1202677432
TV REVIEWS SEPTEMBER 2, 2018 8:00AM PT
TV Review: “My Brilliant Friend” on HBO
by DANIEL D’ADDARIO
The many admirers of Elena Ferrante’s novel “My Brilliant Friend” — the first in her smash series of four books about a pair of Neapolitan women moving through life — likely have two questions about the Italian-language TV adaptation. The first is how faithful it is to the source material, and the second is how well it matches the novel’s effortless ability to move within its protagonist’s mind, tracking subtleties of emotion.
The answers are mainly good news: In the limited series’ first two installments, screened at the Venice Film Festival Sept. 2 before a November bow on HBO, the story closely tracks the movement of the novel. And while achieving the internality of the book is too high an order for this series, its ability to conjure up the world of children confused at the happenings around them is its own achievement. “My Brilliant Friend” is an impressive effort, a translation of novel to screen that preserves certain of its literary qualities while transmuting others into moving and effective TV.
Elena (Elisabetta De Palo), seen briefly in a framing device, receives a call that her old friend has gone missing, and, knowing that this disappearance had been a long time coming, finally sits down to write the story of their intertwined lives. We shift back in time to the dusty and sun-drunk Naples of the 1950s, where Elena (played as a child by Elisa Del Genio) spent her girlhood, in the perpetual company of the bright but troublesome Lila (Ludovica Nasti). Later in the series, we’ll see them as teenagers.
As we see young Lila throwing crumpled paper at teacher’s-pet Elena, De Palo’s voice intones, “She impressed me at once because she was so bad.” The voice-over device seeks to accomplish the same thing as did the narration of the novel, documenting every childish thought with the wisdom of adulthood. But this device is less than necessary. Young Del Genio and Nasti have the unforced chemistry of the kids from “The Florida Project,” the last great entertainment about kids left largely unsupervised. And their frolics in a community whose rules they barely understand make far more potent points about the innocence of youth, and how it falls away, than the voice-over ever could.
In one striking scene, the pair are reading “Little Women” together as a fight breaks out; the viewer has been able to track the complicated social dynamics leading up to it, but to the children, it’s just noise, one among many interruptions that must be endured as a part of a childhood ending too quickly.
The book conveys this loss through the voice of an adult reminiscing; the series has to rely on very young performers. And Del Genio and Nasti are both brilliantly directed by Saverio Constanzo; Nasti, flickeringly mischievous, is brightly alive even in moments of abuse that startle even more on the screen than on the page. Her will to rebel comes with the barbed knowledge she’ll be slapped down for it; in a moment of startling physical abuse, she grins triumphantly, as strong of mind as an adult woman and just waiting for her vulnerable body to catch up. And Del Genio is appropriately baleful; she seems to be mourning her childhood even as she’s in it, haunted by the knowledge of the woman she’ll become. It’s a performance that serves the notion of reflecting back on one’s own history; young Elena may not be wise, exactly, but she’s attuned to currents of pain in the story beyond what a child might be capable of.
The whole production serves a similar purpose: The corner of Naples in which Lila and Elena grow up is picturesque even as it’s cruel, refracting the tough corners of memory through the lens of nostalgia. And the parents are appropriately sidelined, emerging at the moments of highest tension — just as they do in memory.
At times, the series’s faithfulness to the story seems a bit like an anchor. The voice of adult Elena is useful in diagramming social connections within the town, but these might have been more effectively communicated simply by allowing us to experience what the young girls do.
But these are small complaints about a show whose lush production holds within it more than initially meets the eye. With two talented young performers at its center, “My Brilliant Friend” is a journey in which children, seen in retrospect, seem as knowing as adults. That the adults around them are as garrulous and impulsive and violent as children will only make these two wise creatures’ experience, one already cherished by readers the world over, all the more memorable.
Limited series (Eight episodes, two watched for review): HBO, November.
Cast: Elisa Del Genio, Margherita Mazzucco, Elisabetta De Palo, Ludovica Nasti, Gaia Girace, Tommaso Rusciano, Gennaro De Stefano, Kristijan Di Giacomo, Giovanni Amura, Giuliana Tramontano, Federica Sollazzo, Valerio Laviano Saggese, Fabrizio Cottone, Francesco Catena, Eduardo Scarpetta, Francesca Bellamoli, Francesca Pezzella, Lucia Manfuso, Ulrike Migliaresi, Domenico Cuomo, Christian Giroso, Alessandro Nardi, Francesco Serpico.
Credits: An HBO, Rai Fiction and TIMVISION series, a Wildside-Fandango Production, produced by Lorenzo Mieli and Mario Gianani for Wildside, and by Domenico Procacci for Fandango, in co-production with Umedia.November 18, 2018 at 9:57 am #1202677482
TV REVIEW NOV. 16, 2018
My Brilliant Friend Is an Intimate Adaptation of a Beloved Novel
by Matt Zoller Seitz
Based on Elena Ferrante’s first Neapolitan Novel, My Brilliant Friend is a work of quiet confidence. It feels less like a new production than a best-kept secret from another era that was recently unearthed. This is all the more remarkable considering the budget that co-producers HBO and Italy’s RAI and TMIVision have lavished on it. The central location from Ferrante’s novel — a 1950s-era Neapolitan slum — is a set that looks to be as huge as the title locales of Deadwood and Rome. Existing locations have been decorated to match their appearances six-plus decades ago, and the backgrounds teem with period-accurate extras and vehicles: an overhead shot of the parking lot of Piazza del Plebiscito boasts nearly a hundred vintage cars. Somehow, though, the result feels intimate and modest, immersing us in the particulars of a time, place, and social class, resisting the urge to comment on the unfairness and cruelty that stand between the characters and their desire for happiness even as it makes us sharply aware of them.
Adapted by Jennifer Schuur (Big Love) and Paolo Sorrentino (The Young Pope), and directed by Saverio Costanzo (In Treatment), the heart of the series is the fraught bond between Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo and Elena “Lenù” Greco, a couple of smart, strong-willed girls. They’re friends with each other, and at each other. Differences in opportunity stop them from competing on a level playing field and complicate their affection as they mature. Lenù (played as a child by Elisa Del Genio, and as an teenager by Margherita Mazzucco) is our narrator, starting in the present with her friend’s sudden disappearance, then flashing back to their childhood and adolescence. Lila (Ludovica Nasti and Gaia Girace) is positioned as an unsung genius who instinctively masters Italian and Latin, history and mathematics, despite growing up as the poor daughter of a shoemaker in a home that doesn’t value education. Lenù’s circumstances are dire, too, but she’s encouraged by an interventionist schoolteacher and by her dear papa; the latter agrees to pay for tutoring so she can take the admission test for middle school, an opportunity Lila will never have. The friends’ paths diverge, with Lenù literally as well as figuratively escaping the neighborhood (the seventh episode takes place mainly during a working vacation by the sea) while her friend stays behind, quietly honing her craft as a writer (in stories and letters that only Lenù sees).
The disparity in opportunity between Lila and Lenù stays at the forefront of the series’ mind as it guides us from the girls’ childhood through an adolescence marred by the machismo, sexism, and violence of Neapolitan slum life. Education in all its forms, but language in particular, serves as an emotional life preserver, but the girls still always seem to be half a breath from drowning. My Brilliant Friend works discussions of poetry, fiction, and mythology into its plotlines, showing how the arts give the heroines a framework for understanding their deprivation while leaving them keenly conscious that there’s only so much a book can do to ease suffering — especially in a man’s world that treats women as servants, prizes, and ideals. From childhood onward, Lila and Lenù are regularly complimented on their beauty and poise by women as well as men; as they age, this praise starts to seem constricting, then menacing — verbal boxes they’re fated to be packed into. They’re both pursued by suitors ranging from awkward to charming to menacing, and it’s always clear that, no matter what the young men might claim, they appreciate women more for what they represent than who they are. Only women see other women as full human beings — and not all of them do, internalized misogyny being what it is. The girls are often instructed to tamp down their spirits, sometimes even ordered to accept certain offers from men for the greater good of the tribe, because that’s what women do.
Lila’s older brother Rino (played as a teenager by Gennaro De Stefano) is one of the most visible casualties of machismo. He’s a skilled cobbler who’s determined to create a new type of men’s shoe, with his sister providing tough-love encouragement and quality control, and he often sticks up for Lila. But he’s also prideful and insecure and has a volcanic temper, and we spend much of the story worrying that his mouth will write a check that his fists can’t cash. The threat of violence is ever present. Early in the story, two groups of rival gangsters run the neighborhood, and when one gets taken out of the picture, things only get worse. As in the small-scaled, mid-century Italian Neorealist movies that seem to have served as partial inspiration — as well as sweeping Italian family melodramas by directors like Luchino Visconti (The Leopard) and Francis Coppola (The Godfather) — every public interaction and many private ones risk morphing into beatings, and murders. Unequally matched combatants mete out pain as public spectacle, a physical shaming that’s meant to show onlookers who the boss is and caution them never to cross him. This is true in the scenes of domestic violence as well: Men strike women in this story only after realizing that they can’t dominate them with language. Tenderness and lyricism give way to fear, sadness, and loss so frequently that this tale would become unbearable if the series didn’t make the violence seem petty, cruel, and awkward rather than glamorous. An early scene of the girls reading Little Women right before a man gets stomped sums up My Brilliant Friend’s juxtaposition of culture and savagery. The show’s aesthetic seems guided by the scene in the first Godfather where Sonny thrashes Carlo. We see violence from a distance, submerged by the frame line, or partly obscured by the people committing it, because it’s the reactions of onlookers — the mix of horror and indifference — that define Ferrante’s world.
An understated intimacy binds the series. My Brilliant Friend leans into the idea of memory as a series of discrete, recollected periods or moments, splitting the difference between serialized and self-contained storytelling, so that every episode functions as part of a whole and stands on its own as a complete statement. Although the filmmaking indulges the occasional (earned) flourish — notably in the series of dissolves that climaxes the fourth episode, and a nearly 360-degree pan in the seaside episode, drinking in natural splendors that Lenù is experiencing for the first time — this series is more interested in the expressions on people’s faces as they scrutinize each other, contemplate their circumstances, and figure out their next move. The casting is exceptional. Every face and body is credible as one that might actually have lived in that period. The performances are alert and sensitive without seeming studied. As teenaged Lila, Girace in particular is a standout: The shape of her face and the intensity of her gaze evoke a young Barbara Stanwyck, who often played women stuck in impossible circumstances, tried to make the best of it, and drew comfort from recognizing their own resilience even when others couldn’t see it. This is a late-breaking candidate for show of the year, a drama about the place where aspiration and reality intersect.November 18, 2018 at 12:46 pm #1202677566
Episode Title: “Le Bambole” [The Dolls]
Synopsis: The disappearance of her old friend, Lila Cerrullo, causes 60-year-old author Elena Greco to reflect on the early days of their friendship in 1950s Naples, when Elena and Lila are two very different girls at the top of their class. When the girls discover the underground lair of Don Achille, a criminal figure who controls the neighborhood, they decide to confront him, facing their fears together and laying the cornerstone of a lasting friendship and rivalry. Series premiere.
Discuss.November 18, 2018 at 12:53 pm #1202677575
Saw the first two episodes in Italy, on a special scrrening in theater.
It was simply great!November 18, 2018 at 1:39 pm #1202677590
Soundtrack by Max Richter!November 19, 2018 at 1:38 pm #1202678303
Absolutely exquisite premiere! I’ve never seen anything on television like this before. I barely have the words for it. Can’t wait to see more!November 19, 2018 at 7:25 pm #1202678512
So this is airing on Sundays and Mondays, which is a bit distressing. This needs time to find its audience over time instead of being fished out too fast. I can tell HBO doesn’t have confidence in it. Sad since it’s amazing.
Episode Title: “I Soldi” [The Money]
Synopsis: As fourth grade draws to an end, Elena and Lila fight with their families for the chance to continue their education. Later, a trip out of town becomes a day Elena will never forget, and a death changes things in the neighborhood forever.
Discuss.November 21, 2018 at 8:45 am #1202679594
Beautifully done second episode. These two young actresses are giving the performances of the year. I can hardly believe it. The story looks to age them in the previews. I want to see this progress to the end, of course, but I’ll miss them dearly.November 21, 2018 at 10:53 am #1202679723
Brillant first two episodes, I wish more people were checking this out.November 22, 2018 at 12:22 pm #1202680354
I still haven’t understood why this premiers sooner in USA than in Italy. But we’ll finally have the chance to see it next tuesday. If it’s a tenth good as critics say, it’s the best series we’ve had for years at least.November 25, 2018 at 10:18 am #1202681663
Episode Title: “Le Metamorfosi” [The Metamorphoses]
Synopsis: Now a teenager, Elena grapples with the onset of puberty, her studies, and her friendship with Lila, who now works in her family’s shoe-repair store; after a library awards ceremony reveals what Lila has been keeping secret, Elena learns what her friend’s grand plans might be; as the girls’ encounters with the opposite sex become more and more frequent, Lila takes a stand against the dangerous Solara brothers.
Discuss.November 26, 2018 at 9:00 am #1202682176
The time jump was a bit jarring to get used to, and like I suspected, I miss the child actors portraying Elena and Lila. The older actors are fine, but they aren’t as expressive with the material given to them (yet). There’s also all sorts of characters to recognize and remember when so many of them look alike. The story is feeling more expansive and deepens with each passing episode. I’m guessing they’ll get back to the framing device at some point soon, which centers around Lila’s disappearance in current-day and old Elena being totally nonplussed by it, prompting her to start writing of her childhood remembrances of Lila. I’m invested now to see this project through to the end.November 26, 2018 at 10:18 am #1202682262
Episode Title: “Le Smarginatura” [Dissolving Margins]
Synopsis: Entering high school, Elena vows to stay ahead of Lila, academically and romantically; Lila eschews a parade of suitors vying for her affection, choosing instead to focus on her ambitions in the shoe shop; promising a better future for the neighborhood, Stefano Carracci invites Elena, Lila, and their families over for New Year’s Eve; things escalate quickly during a fireworks faceoff with the Solaras, leading Lila to see a new side of her brother Rino.
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