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My Brilliant Friend: Elena and Lila’s Friendship Seduces America even on TV

The first two episodes of the show based on Elena Ferrante’s novels make clear that HBO provides the money while the Italian RAI brings the style.

When even Michele Obama publicly declared her obsession with My Brilliant Friend and Elena Ferrante’s other books, known as the Neopolitan Novels, as did Hillary Clinton, Jonathan Franzen, James Franco, Elizabeth Strout, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ethan Hawk, James Wood, Stoya, and many others – a collection of characters ranging from the first lady to a famous porn star, including sophisticated writers, actors (and what a group of actors!), influential journalists, all of them posting images on Facebook and talking about the books with enthusiasm and admiration – at this point it was clear that the Ferrante Fever was not a passing trend, that it was not just about one good book (or, rather, the four books that constitute Elena and Lila’s saga), but that, rather, here in the United States, the books mean much, much more.

In the last few years, almost everything concerning Elena Ferrante’s work has been analysed in detail, from her mysterious identity (not such a secret anymore), to the high quality of the English translation, and on both sides of the Atlantic authoritative and interesting opinions have been discussed and expressed. But as the first two episodes of the television series have now gone on air, perhaps some brief annotations and a return to a few of the elements of the Ferrante phenomenon could help us update the discussion.

The first two episodes of the series My Brilliant Friend, produced by HBO, together with Rai Fiction, Fandango, Wildside, the Belgian Umedia, and TimVision, aired on HBO on the 18th and 19th of November 2018 after months of fevered expectation studded with news stories, anxieties, the trailer, and numerous articles of different stripes: not only about literature and television, as was expected, but also about politics, sociology, traditions, and in-depth studies of numerous themes, ranging from the tradition of the coming of age novel, to memoirs and criminality in Italy, looking closely once again at Naples in the past and today, Neorealism in all its declinations, feminism, Italy of the post-war period and of the sixties and seventies, even the Italy of today.

The first two episodes were presented at the Venice Film Festival last September and were released as a limited edition in Italian cinemas during one weekend in October, finally aired on Italian TV channel Rai 1 on November 27th, and also becoming available on TimVision. The series, in eight episodes, is directed by Saverio Costanzo (Private, his debut film in 2004, was his best and most prized production to date) and written by him alongside Francesco Piccolo, Laura Paolucci, and Elena Ferrante. HBO is producing together with Italy once again, and in particular with Fandango, after The Young Pope by Paolo Sorrentino, who has become one of the executive producers of this series. Despite depending, in large part, on American capital and having HBO’s signature, My Brilliant Friend is, in fact, a completely Italian series. The filming lasted 29 weeks, the majority of which took place in the large set constructed by the set designer Giancarlo Basili in the ex-industrial area of Marcianise in the Caserta region of Italy. It is the first foreign language TV series with subtitles ever (co-) produced and aired by HBO – specifically, the language spoken is Neapolitan, and rightfully so. The protagonists Elena and Lila (also called Lenù and Lina) are played by Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti as children and by Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace as adolescents, and they are simply perfect. In particular, Lila as a child, Ludovica Nasti, was chosen with great capacity and intuition by Costanzo, made easier by her extremely powerful personality, which is much more immediate and passionate than that of Elena, who is nonetheless the narrating voice.

From the first episodes, the defining characteristics of the series are already discernible, as it remains honest to the novel and tries to create a set in which Lila and Lenù will be trapped in their miserable district in Naples’ periphery, surrounded by the violence of their tenements: shouting, fighting, fear, insults, all of them painted in a way that normalizes them and yet reveals the layers of nuance in the life of these girls, closed off by the wall of the railroad beyond which lies the world and the sea that Lila and Lenù have never seen because the sea is not visible from their neighbourhood of Luzzatti. And a large part of the world is denied to the girls born in this neighbourhood of ignorance and poverty, where the fathers abuse the mothers and, when they get mad, hurl their daughters out of the window; where, once ten years old, children, especially girls, no longer attend school, but must rather go to work. A desperate neighbourhood kept in check by life and by don Achille, until the violence begets more violence.

Differently to other Italian TV series which have also met international success (first among them Gomorra, but also Sorrentino’s Pope, though not completely Italian), Costanzo favors a theatrical and yet intimate style, based around photography and essential storylines that recall the neorealists. He buries the reality of the story in Neopolitan dialect, in the faces and gesturing of the non-professional actors, in a material and spiritual misery that is elegantly portrayed – choices to which he is more loyal in the first episode, while he opens up his style in the second one. The only flaw, in my opinion, is the narrating voice, essential in the novel where adult Lenù recounts her tormented friendship with Lina, but which becomes redundant in the series, even more so in the overly present voice of Alba Rohrwacher, which continuously emphasizes and explains in moments when the two young girls on set would have been perfectly capable of explaining on their own; it is a tool that should not be indispensable, especially in film, in order to understand the intimate thoughts and hearts of the protagonists.

And it is the very hearts of the two protagonists that make up the pivot of Elena Ferrante’s book, the tale of a female friendship which, as all female friendships are, is made up of confidence, admiration, complicity; of something that at times seems like love, but then at other times allows the more visceral feelings to take over, so that that very friendship becomes defined by envy, jealousy, competition. This infinite range of feelings, sometimes violent, is defined by one nature when the girls are little, but it assumes another one as Lila and Lenù become adolescents, until they are women and the feelings become memory, nostalgia, regret. This is where Ferrante’s masterpiece lies, precisely in the intimate and brutally sincere tale of a female friendship transformed over time just as Italy is transformed around these two girls who ultimately leave the neighbourhood and go on to lead two different lives, which will however remain irreparably connected, both in their salvation and in their misery. Which one, of the two, is the brilliant friend, when everything is said and done? Each reader and spectator will have their own opinion.

Le protogoniste di “My Brilliant Friend”

It is said that, in the United States, the four novels were extraordinarily successful, more so than in Italy, strongly impacting the American intellectual world, and not only, which loved and admired My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child, published in the US between 2012 and 2015 by Europa Editions. The Ferrante Fever was a true literary case and, more generally, a cultural one. In Italy it also met with much success, but the critics were more divided, especially after the extraordinary success in the US; the readers responded in a more tepid manner; and especially the Italian intellectual world, perhaps without openly admitting it, did not exactly fall in love with Elena Ferrante’s work – while it had, on the other hand, praised her preceding books, especially Troubling Love (L’amore molesto), turned into a beautiful film by Mario Martone.

What, then, are the reasons behind this very American phenomenon? I think there is more than one answer. Journalists, critics, and professors have all written a lot on the subject, especially Grace Russo Bullaro, who edited an interesting book in 2016, The Works of Elena Ferrante. Reconfiguring the Margins, motived by an academic interest, but also, as she herself admitted, by an uneasy, restless love for the Italian writer, just as the passions of the protagonists in the four novels are restless, as is the friendship between Lenù and Lila. Russo Bullaro’s careful study analyzes the book’s writing style and its transformation into a literary phenomenon, its historical features as told by the writer, as well as the purely linguistic ones. It underlines a point which to me seems fundamental: that Italians and Americans have a very different idea of what is meant by great literature, in that for Italians it is only “high” literature, while here it is not like that at all. And this brings us to other considerations on the American success of Elena Ferrante’s novels and presumably also of the TV series, much awaited and until now well-received by critics and the public alike. My impression is that, once again, the fascination with the Italy of the past, of a poor Italy, and the fascination with those that are the great Italian evils, the criminality of the Mafia from back then and today, are stylistically placed on the same plane and win over the American imagination. The Neapolitan neighbourhood made up of yelling and gossiping down from windows, of women that hit each other out of jealousy, and of obtuse and violent men works perfectly for American readers and spectators who, naturally, and even more so in public, condemn violence, criminality, and sexism, but, when these assume the dimensions of an exquisitely Italian fiction, and thus are colored with ruckus and beauty, with a general passion of words and actions that is essentially foreign to an American public, these same Americans fall in love with Italian stories, because they correspond to that which Americans imagine and from which they are simultaneously attracted and repulsed. And, lest we forget, it is something that is in any case far away from them.

The series My Brilliant Friend incapsulates all of this, it draws explicitly from that imaginary (which is more American than Italian), while remaining loyal to the novel (which is instead much more visceral and “borderless,” to use Grace Russo Bullaro’s term). Despite being initiated and co-produced by HBO, it remains, in my opinion, an essentially Italian series, of a higher quality than average, but still essentially a Rai Fiction, especially in the pace, the narration, and the multi-levelled editing. Without drawing forced comparisons, the series is a far cry from the Sopranos, which gave way to the age of TV series, as well as from other HBO successes, but maybe the times and the types of product and of success have also radically changed. In this moment, My Brilliant Friend has found its niche, not even a too limited one, among quality shows, being a relatively unique product strengthened by the success of the Neopolitan Novels and the Ferrante Fever. Carefully reading recently published reviews, I found that those who praised the show in the US were, in fact, praising the novels, with the exception of Saverio Costanzo’s excellent casting decisions. A good work and a good commercial enterprise, as the cycle of Elena Ferrante’s novels was also a great commercial enterprise. Yes, because behind the veil of the rosy novel, of the kind one reads while lounging under a beach umbrella (and it is a rosy novel, which is indeed read in one breath under a beach umbrella), something much deeper is hidden, which has to do with the partially violent cultural history of our country and with the passionate and yet cruel love of certain deep female friendships, those that last a lifetime, those that mould us, complete us, that make us grow but that may also destroy us. Especially when we factor in brilliance, which, as we know, is not given much space in this world.

Translated by Alyssa Erspamer

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