“My Brilliant Friend”: Our Look at Episodes 1 – 4

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Based on the work of the same title, the HBO series follows the story of two women from the beginning of their friendship. My Brilliant Friend is part one of the four-part novel series called the Neopolitan Novels by author Elena Ferrante. Based outside Naples, Italy, the story begins in 2010 when a phone call in the middle of the night informs Elena Greco that her childhood friend Lila Cerullo has gone missing. No longer friends, Elena hangs up and sits herself down at her computer to begin writing the story of their friendship.

Back to Naples in the early 1950s, we meet a much younger Elena and Lila in primary school.  Easily the two smartest in the class, they have a natural competition until they become friends. Elena is drawn to something in Lila. A spark in her that takes hold in Elena herself. They both want to continue on with middle school and need to pass a test to go. However, they need parental approval as well. Many poor kids don’t continue with education because they have to get a job and send money home to their family. That’s still true today. Both girls study, take the test and pass. Elena is allowed to continue schooling. Lila is not.

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Young Lila and Elena, played by Ludovica Nasti and Elisa del Genio respectively.

They live in a poor neighborhood where families are even separated between poor and poorer. Most notoriously is Don Achille, who is said to have mafia connections and loansharks a local man out of his carpentry shop and thus turning it into a grocery store for himself. He casts a large shadow around the neighborhood. Another local family that causes worry is the Solara family who also has mafia connections and owns the local bar. After the Peluso family lost their carpentry shop, the father goes to work at the Solara’s bar to work off the money he owes. After Don Achille turns up murdered, the Peluso father is arrested for the crime. Lila says it was a woman who killed Don Achille. How does she know?  His death causes even more of a rift between the families.

The story fasts forward to see the girls transform into young women. They get their “monthly gift” and learn about dealing with that but also their burgeoning sexuality. The Solara boys drive their car around and give poor girls rides where they clearly take advantage of them. But the poor girls won’t fight back, and that’s exactly why the boys pick who they do. Well, Lila does fight back. When the boys attempt to pick up Elena for a ride, Lila jabs a box cutter into one of their necks. Elena’s voiceover telling us how little she doubts Lila’s ability to cut him if he had tried to continue. Even though Elena doesn’t feel as pretty as Lila, she does show her breasts at school to two boys for money. Which I found quite an interesting scene. I believe Elena is still a little naive, but she does have the wherewithal to ask for the money first. And I think it’s a little bit of that Lila attitude inside her to push boundaries for herself. Which after reading more about how the story continues, I agree even more and hope to get to see it.

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Teenager Lila and Elena, played by Gaia Girace and Margherita Mazzucco respectively.

The first half of the season wraps up with Elena working as hard as possible in school. Lila continues her own education on her own, studying the same things Elena is. But Lila and her brother have also created a new type of shoe; one today that we might call a leather loafer. But even among that stress already is the money gap in their town. Don Achille’s sons make peace with the sons of the supposed murderer. They all band together to set off fireworks and enter in a new year. But in the midst of their enjoyment, the Solara family sets off their own fireworks, eventually even aiming them at the other crowd to hurt them, finally just descending into shooting an actual gun. While Lila might have proven to them via knife that they can’t do whatever they want, the rest of the boys in the neighborhood want them to know it too. But it could be a matter of time before tension boils over and fights to break out. In such a small neighborhood, how can you keep the peace when you can’t walk five feet without seeing an enemy flaunt their money and act like they can do anything?

I’m thrilled to watch the rest of the show and see what’s in store for Elena and Lila. The story is captivating to know these women live in the times they do, but will eventually live to see the birth of the internet and smartphones. To see the violence and sexual attitudes women had to grow up with, but also the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s approaching. I hope HBO will continue to make the rest of the stories. I find Italian one of my favorite languages to listen to, so I hope we’ll get to see how their lives continue and how Elena and Lila went from being practically inseparable to no longer speaking.


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