CW: Contains mild spoilers
HBO’s new mini-series “My Brilliant Friend” begins with the most modern of openings: a vibrating iPhone, its glow piercing a dark room. The caller ID is briefly visible before an elderly woman, lying alone in bed, answers. Whoever Rino is, he isn’t one for preamble: “Mamma’s missing.”
Thus begins what may be the most complex depiction of a relationship between two women — between two people, for that matter — in contemporary storytelling.
Throughout the conversation, we get the sense that Rino doesn’t care about his mother’s disappearance as much as he cares about how it affects him. He’s only calling her childhood friend, Elena Greco, to ask if his mother is with her, which Elena emphatically denies. She tells Rino not to look for her, convinced that his mother Lila is not missing, but gone.
Filmed in Italian with English subtitles, “My Brilliant Friend” is an adaptation of the 2012 Italian novel of the same name, the first in the Neapolitan Novels quartet.
Written by the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante, the four novels chronicle the childhoods of Elena and Lila amid the poverty and violence of 1950s Naples. For one of Italy’s most celebrated contemporary writers, very little is known about Ferrante: she only gives interviews in writing, and the only facts she has revealed about herself are that she is female and was born in Naples.
Like the original novel, the series largely defies categorization — it’s both a history lesson and a piercing psychological study, an exaltation and a cynical deconstruction of the idea of female solidarity. But there is one mantle that can undeniably be handed to it: “My Brilliant Friend” is one of this winter’s greatest hidden TV gems.
After hanging up on Rino, we see Elena walking around her apartment, filled with books but empty of life, except herself and a dog. But suddenly, there is someone else in the room, someone who may no longer be alive: a little girl sitting in a chair, turning her piercing gaze towards Elena, who unyieldingly stares back. Elena told Rino his mother wasn’t with her, but now we see that’s not really true. All their lives, Elena and Lila have never truly been separated, even if at times they both wanted to be.
So Elena sits down at her laptop and begins to write the story of her and Lila — not to commemorate her vanished friend, but to thwart Lila’s desire to disappear, to ensure some part of her remains.
Guided by voiceover from the adult Elena, we cut to 6-year-old Elena in the unnamed Naples neighborhood where she and Lila grew up. In her elementary school classroom, young Elena is drawing rows of vertical lines with a pencil. It’s meant as a handwriting exercise, but they look like prison bars. Perhaps that’s because, as a child and a teenager, Elena has an imprisoned quality about her: reserved and demure, studious and deferential. Her wide eyes stare out into the world as if she believes she will never truly be a part of it.
By contrast, Lila is daring and assertive, leaving Elena (and just about everyone else who encounters her) feeling both threatened and entranced. The daughter of a desperately poor shoemaker, Lila doesn’t draw lines but teaches herself to read and write before Elena and her other classmates know how to. While Elena seems trapped, Lila seems constantly about to burst out of her tiny body and sack-like gray dress. One has the sense that nothing can keep her a prisoner.
Over the course of the girls’ childhoods, the prison analogy becomes more and more appropriate. For men, distance in the neighborhood is measured not in blocks, but in proximity to the two feuding Camorra (Neapolitan mafia) families that rule the neighborhood — the kind of blood feud that families can hold for generations. And for women, distance is measured in how far their husbands or fathers or brothers will let them go from the house, in how far the sound of a wife or daughter or sister being beaten will travel through the dark multi-story apartment complexes.
Elena’s parents reluctantly allow her to continue past elementary school when the teacher intervenes, but no amount of intervention can persuade Lila’s father. This culminates in a scene that is only more disturbing because of how nonchalantly it’s received: when Lila argues with her father to let her go to middle school, he throws her out of their apartment window and breaks her arm. It’s in full view of the neighbors, and Elena is the only one who is the slightest bit shocked. In such an environment, it’s not surprising that Elena and Lila’s relationship becomes the only constant in their lives.
The girls’ friendship is predicated not on affection, but survival. Elena never truly loses her jealousy of Lila; the first two moments when Elena feels brave enough to reach out to Lila, interestingly, are both moments when Lila is being put down, because her intelligence is such a threat to the neighborhood’s men. In the first moment, a group of boys throws rocks at Lila on the street because she beat their leader in a school competition; in the second, the elder brother of another boy she defeated threatens to literally stick a pin through her tongue (a metaphor if ever there was one).
Nevertheless, Elena realizes that Lila can teach her how to survive in their harsh world, while Lila realizes that even if she has lost a chance to escape the neighborhood, it might not be too late for her friend. If they stay by each other, as Lila perhaps allows herself to hope, maybe both girls can break free of everything that entraps them. If only it were so simple.
Because, that boy who threatened to pierce Lila’s tongue? In the last episode, at the age of sixteen, she’ll marry him.
Ben Reicher PO ’22 is a contributing writer from Agoura Hills, California. He joined his high school newspaper in ninth grade because he loved to argue, and hasn’t stopped since.