TV review: HBO’s My Brilliant Friend is phenomenal

Italian-language series based on Elena Ferrante's popular Neapolitan novels is faithful, magical and unsentimental

MY BRILLIANT FRIEND (Saverio Costanzo). Premieres on HBO Canada and on Sunday (November 18) at 9 pm. Subtitled. Rating: NNNNN

The millions of fans who gobbled up Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet can breathe easy.

My Brilliant Friend is a faithful and deliciously atmospheric adaptation of the first volume in the series. Eight hour-long episodes (six of which were available to review) is the perfect length for this rich material, and the cast and production design will make you swear you’re watching a genuine slice of post-war Italian life.

When elderly narrator Elena, a writer, learns of her childhood bestie Lila’s disappearance, she decides to recount the story of their scrappy upbringing in a lower-class neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples in the 1950s.

Both girls are bright and poor, but a stroke of luck allows Elena to continue through middle and high school, while Lila must work in her family shoe store, secretly studying on the side. The onset of adolescence changes their status in the neighbourhood, especially for Lila, who’s wooed by many young men, including a charismatic gangster.

If the miniseries suffers from any problem, it’s the same one that affected the book: it’s hard to keep track of all the characters and their families. (And unlike the book, there’s no index to keep consulting.)

The non-Italian viewer also won’t know when the characters are speaking in proper Italian or in dialect.

But director Saverio Costanzo’s attention to detail is phenomenal. He handles the novel’s most memorable scenes – everything from a trip to a musty cellar to find lost dolls to a brutal street fight in downtown Naples – with an innate sense of mood and drama. And the scene in which neighbours crowd into a room to watch their first-ever TV set is rendered with real magic.

The way he captures poverty is clear-eyed and never sentimental.

The casting of Elena and Lila in both childhood (Elisa del Genio and Ludovica Nasti) and teenagehood (Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace) is remarkable. Both Elenas are slightly dreamy and self-absorbed, while the two Lilas practically explode with intensity.

One note. The series ought to come with a trigger warning. There are scenes of extreme violence, including several involving parents and children. The characters’ entrenched sexism and stubborn pride are palpable in almost every scene.

I didn’t get to watch the finale, but if the closing scene is anything like the book’s, you’ll be hooked, counting the months until the series’ second part – The Story Of A New Name – begins airing.


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