HBO’s ‘My Brilliant Friend: The Story of a New Name’: TV Review

Caroline Framke

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Three episodes into “My Brilliant Friend: The Story of a New Name” comes a scene as lovely and understated as it is pointed and bruising, a combination in which the show specializes, especially in this second season. Elena (Margherita Mazzucco), nervous about going to a party at her intimidating professor’s house, rifles through the lavish closet of her best friend, Lila (Gaia Girace). As she searches for a suitable outfit, she flicks past all of Lila’s louder dresses as Lila looks on, lip slightly upturned in fond amusement at Elena’s palpable stress. As framed by director Saverio Costanzo, almost the entire scene plays out in the reflection of a bifurcated mirror on Lila’s closet, keeping each woman on either side of a dividing line. When Lila crosses over to help Elena with a dress, she briefly disappears in the fold of the glass as Elena stares into it, straining to see herself without Lila right beside her.

This gorgeous, obviously symbolic series of shots is exemplary of “My Brilliant Friend,” HBO’s Italian adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels about Elena, Lila, the fierce and complex friendship between them extending from the 1950s through the present, and the tiny Naples town they more and more reluctantly call home. Ferrante’s writing is dense with detail, straightforward and yet prone to underlining metaphorical allusions. The television series, on which the deliberately mysterious Ferrante (a pseudonym) has a writing credit on all episodes, does the same, using narration from an older Elena to guide the stories and blur the lines between memories and facts as the character tries to reconcile such boundaries for herself.

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When Ferrante’s novels were first published, starting with “My Brilliant Friend” in 2011, they gained a devoted following of largely women readers who appreciated Ferrante’s attention to the thornier aspects of close female friendship —jealousy, codependence, resentment — as well as its many particular joys. In Lila and Elena, she created a pair of friends who barely have to speak in order to understand each other perfectly, which can result in either incomparable support or unimaginable pain if one strikes out at the other in the way she knows will hurt the most. Lila’s striking looks and furious wit have made her the most magnetic presence in any room she enters, whether as a kid with a wicked grin or as a woman who’s learned to weaponize it. Elena, by contrast, has spent her entire life shrinking herself to both accommodate Lila’s fire and process her own churning feelings. They’ve always been inverses of each other, aware of each other’s presences, inextricably entwined.

In its first season, “My Brilliant Friend” followed Ferrante’s first book in depicting their childhood and early adolescence, painting an almost impressionistic picture. In this second season, based on “The Story of a New Name,” the series reveals with more ambitious scope and often jarring clarity just how Elena and Lila, well into their teenage years, are forced to grow up — and then, despite themselves, forced apart. It also underlines a pressing thread of the first season and the novels alike, namely how traditionally ascribed social roles for men and women damage everyone involved, and the myriad ways careless, proud men dismiss women as window dressing. “The Story of a New Name” explores that in even more depth by highlighting not just the overt violence some of the men in Elena and Lila’s lives perpetrate but how many traffic in devastating emotional manipulation, whether they realize it or not.

While the drama takes pains to balance the story between Elena and Lila, the trajectory of “The Story of a New Name” means that Season 2 almost entirely belongs to Lila (and, by proxy, Girace’s ferocious performance). Picking up shortly after her disastrous wedding night, Lila spends much of the time trapped in an abusive marriage to Stefano (Giovanni Amura), a social-climbing businessman whose general sense of powerlessness manifests in bursts of rage when she refuses to fall in line. As Elena climbs the academic ranks with her diligent studies and occasional legs up from kindly teachers, Lila sinks deeper into a chilling domestic drama that makes for some of the hardest, most effective moments of the series to date. The creeping unease that enters the frame with Stefano is viscerally frightening, which the directing underlines with skewed shots that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie, and strategic perspective shots that bring the viewer directly into Lila’s viewpoint as she steels herself to withstand the abuse — or, for that matter, into Elena’s as she stands helplessly by, listening to Lila scream behind a closed door.

Because as compelling as Lila is, it’s Elena’s narration that drives the series. Her struggle with her passive nature is a huge thread of her overall journey, but it often makes her a frustrating conduit (not to mention that it gives Mazzucco, who can be very good when she gets the room to emote, relatively little to do). Her tendency to observe her surroundings rather than meaningfully interact with them, however, also makes being in her head an illuminating experience. Through Elena’s eyes (i.e., the lens of the directors and DP Fabio Cianchetti), we have to give her world as much consideration as she does. We feel her fear, her love, her joy. It’s this kind of attention that makes “My Brilliant Friend” an unusually thoughtful, perceptive series, taking the interiority of teenage girls and women seriously while immersing its audience in a specific culture that, nonetheless, feels all too painfully familiar.

“My Brilliant Friend: The Story of a New Name” premieres Monday, March 16 at 10 pm on HBO.

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