“My Brilliant Friend” – Italian Women’s Saga [Series Review]

My Brilliant Friend


Title: “My Brilliant Friend” (TV Series)

Release Date: 2018

Cast: Gaia Girace, Margherita Mazzucco, etc.


To begin with, a confession as personal as it is trivial: I love Elena Ferrante’s prose. I love her for her smooth, graceful style, which always draws you into the reading from the first sentence and lets the narrative flow until the last words. I delight in the sweeping panorama of Naples that emerges from her books. I love the prose for its subtle, yet insightful analysis of the female psyche and the experiences that shape a woman’s destiny. For this reason, as I’m sure every other lover of Ferrante’s work, I couldn’t help but watch the HBO serialized production based on the Neapolitan series “My Brilliant Friend.”

And I must admit that not only was I not deceived, but I relived the unique experience of interacting with the Italian writer’s work. I believe that the serial adaptation of this prose is extremely faithful to the original and wins the viewer’s heart with its unsophisticated simplicity. Even more: I feel that the screen adaptation has enriched my perception with the precisely recreated realities of Italy changing over several decades. Italian architecture, culture, customs, language, as well as wonderfully selected actors – all this makes “My Brilliant Friend” a production worth watching and remembering.

“My Brilliant Friend” and the prose of Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante, whose name in 2016 Time included in its list of the 100 most influential people in the world, has not revealed her identity until now. This is because it is not known exactly who hides behind the writing pseudonym, where she lives, where she comes from, or even whether she is a woman or a man. There have already been a number of various investigations into the case, especially since the prose of the mysterious author has conquered all of Europe in recent years. So far, however, it has not been clearly established who Elena Ferrante really is. A condition of the writer’s cooperation with the publishing house was not to reveal her identity, which, it must be said, turned out to be one of the important components of building a kind of legend of the creator.

My brilliant friend book

Several translations of Ferrante’s prose have been published in Poland to date. In addition to the famous Neapolitan series, “The Lost Daughter” (2017), “The Lost Doll” (2017), “Troubling Love” (2018), “The Days of Abandonment” (2020) and “The Lying Life of Adults” (2020) have also been published. Each of this author’s books receives an enthusiastic reception, and readers savor her unique style and extremely insightful portraits of women. For at the center of Ferrante’s world is undoubtedly the female experience at various existential stages. The Italian writer passionately tells of both girlhood growing up and becoming a woman, motherhood and the struggle with menopause. On top of this, her prose is bold, not hesitating to tackle the most intimate topics related to female physicality, but also the extremely difficult emotions inherent in the role of a mother, for example.

“My Brilliant Friend”, which begins a tetralogy that also includes “The Story of a New Name,” “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” and “The Story of the Lost Child”, was published in 2011. It is a kind of saga depicting the fate of two female friends: coming from the poorest district of Naples, Elena and Lila, taking place over several decades, from the post-war era to the near present. The first of the girls gains a chance to study, so she manages to leave southern Italy, become a writer and settle in Naples. Lila, on the other hand, although she is forced to end her education for financial reasons

“My Brilliant Friend” – HBO screen adaptation.

The first season of the HBO series “My Brilliant Friend” premiered in 2018. So far, there have been 3 series of episodes, and we are waiting for more, as the entire story of the Ferrante series has still not been screened. Most of the material was adapted by Saverio Costanzo, the director who also co-wrote the production’s script. The role of Elena Greco was played by Margherita Mazzucco, while Lila Cerullo was played by Gaia Girace. Both actresses were selected very well in terms of physical conditions, but it must also be said that despite their young age they also rose to the challenge in terms of technique. We see two women with completely different characters, who share an incredible bond – both edifying and destructive at the same time. Elena struggles to climb the ranks of education, constantly suppressing complexes in relation to the incomparably talented Lila. However, the very title “Brilliant Friend” refers to both characters at the same time – for the term can be applied both to the famous writer, who tells the story of her complicated fate, and to her friend.

My Brilliant Friend series review

Elena and Lila are like fire and water: one a delicate blonde with a shy, calm nature, the other a temperamental brunette spontaneously expressing emotions and innovative views. Interestingly, this characterization turns out to be only an appearance, for at a deeper level it is quite the opposite. It is Elena who is the braver one, who gains the courage to leave Naples and try a different life, while Lila stays in a stuffy and degenerate environment. Anticipating the fates of both women is a significant scene when, as girls, they both come up with the idea of a secret “trip” outside the District. During the audacious trip, it is Elena who, against her own expectations, wants to continue the journey, while the daring Lila is afraid to go further and aborts the adventure. This scene, by the way, is part of Ferrante’s specific creative method, which the series aptly adapts.

Namely, it is about portraying the fate of the characters of the entire saga on principles inspired by Freudian psychoanalysis. After all, all the most significant things in the lives of the characters happen in childhood, while their mature life consists in resolving the complexes and internal conflicts that arose at that time. It is in childhood that Nino becomes the object of Elena’s tenderest feelings, Stefano threatens Lila with cutting off her tongue, and Enzo confesses his love for her. Something else also happens in childhood that I think may be the key to interpreting the whole series, namely the story with the dolls.

“My Brilliant Friend” – a story about lost dolls

The lost doll is a kind of leitmotiv of Ferrante’s work, which is also repeated in “The Daughter”. In the Neapolitan series, Elena and Lila exchange their dolls Tina and Nu as children, and then Lila throws her friend’s doll into the basement, and Lenu does the same with her friend’s toy. Then the two go to the creepy basement, but do not find Tina and Nu. Convinced that it was Don Achille who took their toys they go to the repulsive neighbor, and he gives them money, with which they buy no longer toys, but a book that changes their view of the world – “Little Women.” Inspired by the reading, Lila writes “The Blue Fairy,” which awakens in Elena a deep desire to be a writer. The theme of dolls also returns in the final scene of the entire series.

My Brilliant Friend HBO

The clear parallelism of the story with the disappearance of the dolls and Lila’s daughter is repeated at an even deeper level. Namely, it is the commonality of the history of the dolls and heroines that become identical with each other. After reading, I couldn’t help thinking that the title of the entire series does not accidentally have the singular number – “brilliant friend” is one, because there is a possibility that it is about one and the same character. Perhaps Lila and Elena are the same person and two versions of her life story: the great writer and her alternative fate, had she not been given the chance to get an education and leave Naples. In the character of Lila, moreover, I see a kind of personification of the creative force that exists in Elena, her genius, her inner spark, dangerous and untamed, inherent in her Neapolitan roots. As an elderly woman, the writer directly says of her “friend”: “All her life, using my living body and my existence, she told her story of redemption.”

“My Brilliant Friend” and the history of Italy in a nutshell

What is certainly worth praising the serialized adaptation of “Brilliant Friend” for is the extensive panorama of Italy and its post-war history. In the foreground here we have the southern part of Italy, completely different from its northern regions. The series shows in great detail the reality of the city’s poor neighborhoods and the difficult fate of their inhabitants. Before our eyes the structures of the notorious Kamorra, which like a cancer begins to reign in all corners of the metropolis, are created. Naples, however, in addition to its grim and dusty face, also has another face here with the beautiful beaches of the Bay of Naples or the nearby paradise island of Ischia.

Life in Pisa and Florence is completely different. Here, newcomers from southern Italy are ashamed of their Neapolitan dialect and hide their origins. But here the social and cultural revolution is also arriving. Students stand in solidarity with hard-working workers, communist ideas take hold of hearts and minds. Of particular importance are the emerging feminist movements. In Italy, controlled by patriarchal patterns, women are asserting their rights and subjectivity.

In the series, in keeping with the spirit of Ferrante’s prose, women’s issues are central themes. Not only do we see female portraits and biographies on screen, but we also hear Elena’s commentary taken from the novel from behind the frame. Her words flesh out the subtle aspects of the female experience, especially the issues of carnality or motherhood that determine the fate of the female characters. If one could characterize “My Brilliant Friend” in one sentence, it would be, in my opinion, a story about women’s maturation to autonomy, awareness of their bodies and deciding their own fate. On this path the heroines make many mistakes and sometimes make wrong choices, but they are part of their own story, which they have the courage to write fully autonomously, risking the loss of reputation, money and sometimes even the respect of those around them.