REVIEW: HBO’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’ gives justice to Ferrante’s novel

HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s book “My Brilliant Friend,” director Saverio Costanzo enlisted actors near Naples, Italy, to ensure authenticity in casting. (Photo from IMDb)

There has always been a fascination surrounding the Neapolitan Novels. The series is an exemplar of intricate storytelling, recounting the friendship between two young girls, Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, who live in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, Italy. Elena Ferrante’s books have gained a world-wide following, with critics praising their portrayal of friendship, life and womanhood.

So earlier this year, when HBO announced a mini-series adaptation of the first book in the series “My Brilliant Friend,” fans were worried the project would flop. When HBO hired Italian director Saverio Costanzo, others were curious how he would interpret the complicated lifelong relationship between Lila and Elena and if he could accomplish the feat genuinely and authentically. The worry was put to rest Sunday night with the series premiere, and if the rest of the mini-series can follow suit, this cinematic adaptation is set to become an instant classic.  

The series begins with a phone call. Rino, Lila’s eldest son, calls in tears to tell Elena (also known as Lenù) that his mother is missing once again. Except this time, she has taken everything, even cutting herself out of family photographs. Lenù tells him it is pointless to look for her and that there is nothing she can do to help. She hangs up the phone and begins to think of Lila, her best friend with whom she shared a turbulent relationship. With tears rolling down her face, Lila opens her laptop and begins to recount their story.

The pilot episode is emotionally gripping and captivating from the start. In one of the most compelling scenes, it is revealed that young Lila — a small, disruptive child who sits near the back of the class — is intellectually superior to her peers in nearly all aspects of academia. Costanzo faithfully translated this scene from the book, yet it added something the novel lacked — honest moments of silence, with the audience’s eyes locked on Lila, watching her as she competes with the older boys at school. The scene arouses tension, as the audience is forced to watch Lila remain silent, despite knowing she has all the answers.

This is the allure of Lila’s character. Aside from Ludovica Nasti’s superb acting, her complexity and stark contrast to Lenù are captivating. No one knows why she “chooses” to remain silent; why she is so vocal against others, but silent toward herself; and why she is so intellectually bright, yet always remains physically in the dark. Lila herself does not know why. Her mystery is what scares her classmates, yet it is what fascinates Lenù and grips the audience.

The slow pace of the miniseries also follows the book’s pace, and, once again, Costanzo’s careful execution pays off. The slow timing and pacing allow the audience to fully engage in each moment.

From this, one can relish each defining moment of Lila and Lenù’s relationship — from the afternoon they first became acquaintances to the evening they first became friends. It enhances the solidarity between the two protagonists who as young girls have decided to take on their chaotic neighborhood together. It also allows the audience to fully grasp each emotion and the foreshadowed impact it will have on the girls, especially with the violence plaguing their neighborhood. Costanzo is careful with crafting and executing the first chapters of the novel in order to set a steady foundation for the rest of the series.

However, one of the series’ most impressive aspects is Costanzo’s recreation of the Neapolitan neighborhood setting. He was dedicated to recreating Naples in the 1950s, before the city’s urbanization and industrialization by hiring actors fluent in the Neapolitan dialect, because he had no intention of dubbing the series for English speakers and wanted the story to be told in its truest form. The neighborhood is one of the main characters in the story, and Costanzo knew that it needed to be as complex and carefully crafted as its inhabitants.

By all indications, “My Brilliant Friend” is shaping up to become a hit. If the rest of the series matches the technical and artistic achievements of the first episode, the entire Neapolitan Novel series adaptations have potential to become a story that people talk about for generations to come.