The History Lessons of “My Brilliant Friend”

The History Lessons of “My Brilliant Friend”

Illusions

HBO’s My Brilliant Friend.

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The third season of HBO’s My Brilliant Friend opens where the second left off, in a bookshop in Milan. It’s 1968, and Elena “Lenù” Greco (Margherita Mazzucco) has just finished an event for her debut novel. The first face we see, emerging from behind a gold metalwork spiral on the door, is that of Nino Sarratore (Francesco Serpico). Lenù has loved him since she was a girl, and now, after many twists and turns, including Nino’s tortured affair with her best friend, Lila (Gaia Gerace), he finally seems ready. He holds the gilded door open for Lenù, and he holds her gaze in the crowd. These two working-class kids from Naples have made it in the cultured North; with their matching glasses, they’re practically made for each other. Too bad she’s already engaged to Pietro Airota (Matteo Cecchi), a classics scholar from one of the preeminent left-wing families in Italy.

It’s a rather lush, romantic opening for the season that ushers in Italy’s “Years of Lead,” a 15-year period marked by political violence on both the right and the left—and that’s just one of the season’s many pointed ironies. Adapted faithfully from Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, the new season launches Lila and Lenù into adulthood, navigating the conditions of work, marriage, and family in a society undergoing radical change.

So many previously forbidden things suddenly seem possible as Lila and Lenù move out of adolescence: autonomy for working women, the rise of organized labor, fulfilling romantic love. But this season’s story, written by Ferrante with series creator Saverio Costanzo, Laura Paolucci, and Francesco Piccolo, wryly checks those hopes even as it encourages and entangles them. Men crowd the road to liberation, and even the most sympathetic husbands, comrades, and lovers won’t easily relinquish their traditional authority. Among the many tantalizing fantasies of this season is the suggestion that they will.

Costanzo directed all but two of the episodes in the first two seasons, but now he has passed the baton to Daniele Luchetti, who oversees this sharpest turn in Lila’s and Lenù’s lives. Lila doesn’t even appear in the first episode, and Lenù plays only a framing role in the second. For much of season three, they are separated by geography and circumstance. Lila, the brilliant elementary school dropout who married the prosperous and ultimately duplicitous grocer Stefano Carracci (Giovanni Amura), remains in Naples. Since her affair with Nino, she has descended in class, now living out of wedlock with her son, Gennaro, and her companion, Enzo Scanno (Giovanni Buselli), while working in ugly conditions in a sausage factory. At night, Lila and Enzo study the new technology of computer coding and, at the encouragement of their old friend Pasquale Peluso (Eduardo Scarpetta), attend meetings of the local Communist Party, which is trying to organize Lila and her coworkers. Lenù, meanwhile, has graduated from the Normale University in Pisa. She rides the success of her first novel, and the influence of her well-connected in-laws, to a contributor’s desk at Italy’s Communist newspaper L’Unità, supplying her parents (Luca Gallone and the magnificently furious Anna Rita Vitolo) with a coveted TV and telephone.

Of course, neither woman is happy, because neither really owns her own life, even though they’re now adults. Lila, who was raped by Stefano on their wedding night, is sexually assaulted at work and shunned by her family for fleeing her marriage. Lenù, who was seduced by Nino’s father as a teenager, an event she has fictionalized in her book, is constantly fending off unwanted advances from the supposedly cultured men of her new social circle—aged professors, younger intellectuals and artists. When she and Pietro finally marry, he refuses her request for birth control, insisting that marriage means having children. Lenù is shocked; she thought theirs would be a union of equals. “Can I write another book first?” she asks in the car on the way to the civil ceremony. “You can write a book while you’re expecting,” he replies angrily. He impregnates her that very night, ensuring her transformation into a bourgeois housewife.

Yet progress feels possible for both women, if not without compromise. With help from Lenù, Lila wins an exhausting labor victory at the factory and heads back to the old neighborhood. There she reluctantly goes to work for the Solara brothers, Michele (Alessio Gallo) and Marcello (Elvis Esposito), organized crime bosses she spent most of the first two seasons resisting. They’ve always wanted to possess her, but now they’re offering to pay her handsomely to run a data-processing center, buying her intelligence instead of her body. Lenù, meanwhile, manages to stay connected to a thread of intellectual life, even while caring for two small children full-time. With her girls, the younger one still in her arms, she attends political demonstrations and visits her feminist sister-in-law, Mariarosa (Giulia Mazzarino), who encourages her to get back to writing. A new book, about the literary fabrication of women by men, takes shape. It’s around this time that Nino, who has always admired Lenù’s writing—or perhaps it’s just her success—returns.

Though Luchetti is new to the show, he builds on the aesthetic established by Costanzo in previous seasons, borrowing from the film movements of the periods dramatized: Italian neorealism for season one’s postwar childhood and French New Wave for the second season’s plunge into the 1960s. Luchetti, for his part, uses the handheld cameras of cinéma vérité to bring to life the political action and domestic unraveling of the late ’60s and early ’70s. The result is a story that seems to move almost seamlessly through history, using visual cues that many viewers already subliminally associate with the culture and the times.

Core aspects of the original aesthetic remain, including an abundance of flat, wide establishing shots that are by turns enchanting and estranging, appropriate for this long story of illusions dashed and transformed. The contrasts of North and South are many: Thin, sickly Lila largely inhabits the dark, suffocating spaces of the old Neapolitan neighborhood, while Lenù enjoys a Tuscan life of old money, natural light, and towering double doors that open onto lush green gardens. Her clothes are elegantly tailored, her hair softer and better cut, her daughters constantly praised for being so well-behaved. Even Lenù’s telephone, her most consistent connection to Lila, is a cheerful yellow, a subtle contrast to Lila’s violent red one. Before the telephone, the brightest color in Lila’s life belonged to the endless rows of pig carcasses hanging in the factory.

One of the most arresting choices of the season is the retention of the entire young adult cast, led by Gerace, 18, and Mazzucco, 19, who have grown up before the audience’s eyes. In a neorealist gesture, neither had acted before My Brilliant Friend, and they are now playing characters older than themselves. Their undisguisable youth might have been a distraction, but instead it highlights one of the novels’ most defining claims: the idea that we retain our core essences even through periods of great change. Lenù will always be Lenù, restrained and apparently good but harboring a wild, envious ambition that propels her out of the neighborhood—a tension Mazzucco captures beautifully in the faintest movements of her mouth. Lila, for her part, will always be Lila, as inflexible as Gerace’s shoulders, and preternaturally correct in her critiques of power—not just of the brutal Solaras, but of the upwardly mobile Lenù too. Both actresses do their best work this season, their performances lived-in and honest; it’s almost a shame they’ll be replaced by older actors going forward.

The same is true of the men in My Brilliant Friend, who take up more space in the story now that the girls have become women. Serpico’s Nino is a perfect snake, charming and self-deprecating enough to fool a smart woman; Buselli’s Enzo sees the hard truth through piercing blue eyes; and Gallo’s slick Michele might be dismissed as a small-time crook if he didn’t keep turning up as the threatening force behind the scenes. The standout is Cecchi as the stubborn scholar Pietro. Though congenial and nonviolent in principle, he is nevertheless a disappointment. Often seen at his desk, the centerpiece of his comfortable study, Pietro gets to devote himself to his intellectual work while Lenù squeezes hers into the margins around household duties. When she points out the disparity, he sits there stolidly, as though physically incapable of understanding. All of them, to the actors’ great credit, make perfect sense to themselves.

Appropriately for a season focused on domestic work, children get a lot of screen time, especially Lenù and Pietro’s young daughter Dede (Sofia Luchetti, the director’s own child), who frolics and goes to the potty with the best of them. Observant and precocious, Dede is at once her mother’s spirit reborn in better circumstances and her inconvenient conscience. She’s also a young girl in a violent world, and we watch anxiously along with Lenù as Dede discovers what that means in a country planned and controlled by men.

In Florence, Lenù is largely protected from the vendettas of the old neighborhood, but the Years of Lead bring violence even to the most cultured, peaceful spaces of the North. A student pulls a gun on Pietro over an exam question. Pasquale and his upper-class girlfriend, Nadia Galiani (Giorgia Gargano), show up at Lenù’s home unannounced, aggressive and clearly on the run from something bloody. And after a murder in the old neighborhood, Lila sends Gennaro to Lenù for safekeeping.

In a world shaped so thoroughly by male authority and violence, is heterosexual love even desirable for women? The answer for Lila and Lenù is still open, but Luchetti’s use of “Spring,” a recomposition of Vivaldi by Max Richter and a refrain throughout the series, is telling. In season three’s first episode, the piece plays over a nightmare of social control, as Lenù imagines an angry chorus from the neighborhood chasing her down over her “dirty” novel. In the last episode, “Spring” consecrates a moment of romantic fantasy fulfilled. That the same piece of music can accompany such apparently contrasting emotional states indicates they have more in common than a superficial reading would suggest. In this brave new Italy, a working-class woman can write an important novel and find her soul mate, two transformative experiences for the individual. But when the personal thrill wears off, the collective problems remain. “Everyone talks themselves into a life that suits them best,” Lila tells Lenù on the phone. The question, in every season of their lives, is what they will talk themselves into now—and how, and for whom, they will act.

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