Why You Should Watch Italian My Brilliant Friend on HBO

Courtesy of HBO

By Francesca Faccani

Americans rarely venture out into the world of non-English-speaking cinema and television, sadly missing out on a lot of high-quality productions just because of the intimidating language barrier. This was pointed out by Parasite director Bong Joon-ho in his 2020 Academy Award acceptance speech, he then addressed American viewers challenging them to get out of their comfort zones and experiment film-wise.

In fact, things are different for those whose first language is not English. In order to access a wider market of content (meaning Hollywood productions), these people have to adapt. 

When it comes to books, however, America is promptly ready to import and translate. That’s why everyone is at least familiar with the Neapolitan Series of novels by Italian writer Elena Ferrante, especially the first one, My Brilliant Friend – and at the same time not many know that it’s been adapted into a series, a collaboration between the Italian national service television RAI and HBO- that’s now airing its second season.

My Brilliant Friend is the epic of the passionate yet rivalrous friendship between two girls, Lila and Elena, spanning from their childhood through their late adulthood. Present-day narrated by Elena, the story unfolds as she tries to make her way through the memories of their friendship, that reverb the intricacy and multifacetedness that female friendships can have. The series begins in a 1950s neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, where poverty, ignorance, and violence saturate the narrative, supported by the almost exclusive use of Neapolitan dialect. Every season covers a different season of their lives that sees them in different places and in different terms.

The story per se is simple and universal: two girls meet in elementary school and become friends over the promise that they will get out of their seamy neighborhood– a neighborhood that no one really seems to be able to flee. It is, however, the plot and the many intrinsic sub-elements that embellish the tale to make it unique. The only way to actually escape from their destiny, in that unlucky microcosm, is through education. During that time in Italy, only elementary school was an obligation and it was a rare privilege to continue one’s studies. Lila is consequently forced to quit, while Elena basically remains the only one to be allowed to attend high school in the city. Their paths diverge, bringing their relationship to unexplored sentiments such as envy, malice, and violence. While on the one side this stands for a j’accuse of postwar analphabetism in Italy, on the other, it triggers a more intimate association with our personal experience – that of the gap that’s created between those who stay and those who leave.

Rarely have relationships on the screen not been portrayed as rosy or something like it, whereas more often than not there are so many shades in the between. And My Brilliant Friend, through the lens of the venerable female gaze, boldly explores them all.

The merit of the show lies in being able to sublimate universal experiences into a well-crafted story that’s only apparently distant in time-space coordinates. 

The distance created by setting the narrative in postwar Naples eventually comes in handy as a history lesson. Because one cannot properly portray postwar Naples without hinting at mafia, viewers will be obliquely introduced to its opaque world made of black market, loans, and violent paybacks. Glancing at it through little girls’ eyes, they’ll uncover mafia’s inherent logic from square one. Local violence is a recurring thread- made rawer by the use of Neapolitan dialect- and it runs opposite to culture and education, represented by the Italian official language that the two girls learn at school and that’s the only variety they would like to use.

The rhythm of the narration highly differs from American standards, which are essentially fast-paced and punctuated by short cuts. Italian storytelling reverberates the rhythms of the country, slow and reflexive. That’s also the tempo that we’re all subject to under quarantine. This could be a suitable time to channel to different and more dilatory tunes, to venture into foreign worlds that would normally make us feel uncomfortable. And superb My Brilliant Friend serves just the purpose.

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