My Best Friend/My Self (Series Review: “My Brilliant Friend”)


The story of two young girls growing up in a violent and impoverished post-war Neopolitan neighborhood in the 1950s, a place where Modernity seemed a dream and ancient patriarchal codas were strictly enforced, dictating the extent to which any female could aspire, both personally and academically. A masterful film adaptation of a literary masterpiece.

SnapShot Plot

In a break from tradition, Norma’s Streaming Picks is focusing on an HBO series for once, even though this blog considers HBO so mainstream that it doesn’t need any help getting the word out. The exception here is itself an exceptional piece of film-making, the long awaited Italian language adaptation of the first in a groundbreaking 4-part series of novels known simply as The Neopolitan Series. This 8-part miniseries is the adaptation of the first book, entitled My Brilliant Friend

The entire story (as it unfolds throughout the four books) is told through the point of view of one of the two central characters, Elena Greco, who one night as a woman of 60 receives a phone call from the brother of her childhood friend, Lila Cerullo. It seems Lila has disappeared, and what’s more, her disappearance is no surprise to any who knew her as a child. Realizing that this latest gesture of defiance is no doubt the culmination of a turbulent lifetime of volatility and chaos, Elena (herself an acclaimed author) decides that the only way to capture Lila is to fix her in memory, on paper. So she sits down to write the definitive history of hers and Lila’s pasts growing up in a bleak and remote suburb of Naples. . .  the kind of place where you could live your entire life without ever seeing the sea or venturing into one of the richest cultural cities on earth. The neighborhood is a brutal place devoid of any dreams of a better future, especially for girls.

We meet Elena and Lila at the age of five or six, when it becomes shockingly clear that Lila has a naturally brilliant mind and that her capacity to grasp any subject is not only prematurely advanced but also almost boundless. Thus begins the story of a friendship so intense, so competitive yet protective of each other, that the lines that separate one girl from the other become blurred in the process of growing up and navigating a world at once so filled with promise and danger as to keep them both guessing where their destinies may lie.



Parting Shot

The elusive author of The Neopolitan Series, who goes by the pseudonym, Elena Ferrante, has never done an interview nor revealed his/her true identity. That’s quite the accomplishment, considering what a literary success the series has been throughout the world, translated into countless languages so far. But to learn that the Director of My Brilliant Friend, Saverio Costanzo (who shared writing credits on the script with Laura Paolucci and Francesco Piccolo) also took writing notes and guidance from author Ferrante for two years on the project without ever meeting her/him in person, seems unfathomable. The end result is a pitch perfect production that gets everything right, most especially in the casting choices of the 4 young actors portraying the younger and teenaged versions of Elena and Lila. To anyone who’s devoured all four of the novels (as has Yours Truly), it was a matter of holding one’s breath to see if the flesh and blood could even come close to the imagined characters in one’s mind. Well, not only were Elena and Lila perfectly captured by the non-actors cast in their roles (plucked from obscurity from over 9,000 applicants), but the entire neighborhood was seemingly magically conjured from the pages of the book, like some alchemy of adaptation. Ferrante insisted throughout the pre-production that all the actors were to be culled from authentic Neopolitan neighborhoods, and that the almost arcane regional dialect of the day was to be authentically captured in the dialogue of this HBO series.

What we have here is a perfectly preserved place in space and time, whose familial, sexual, political and cultural tides are roiling to a boil at any given moment. And fixed at the center is Elena and Lila and the depiction of female friendship rarely seen in literature or in cinema, whose essence exists not only in symbolic form (substituting for Italy herself) but more viscerally as the kind of bond for which there is no choice, and from whom any profound separation signals a tragic loss of self. What remains ahead – in the remaining 3 novels to be adapted – is the future for Elena and Lila – writ small and large. I’m holding my breath for another miracle.

My Brilliant Friend is presently streaming on HBO.

Norma’s Streaming Picks is proud to announce squatters’ rights on a fantastic site for Baby Boomers, Midcentury/Modern as well as right here at home. I invite you to go there for more great content!

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