Monday 1 July 2019

On Cable and streaming - Barbara Grummels is an enthusiast for the adaptation of Elena Ferrante's MY BRILLIANT FRIEND

Literary adaptations for the screen often miss the mark. Not so with the eight episode adaptation for TV of My Brilliant Friend.  Each episode is a television one hour and I only wish I could have seen it on the big screen. Available in Australia on Foxtel, My Brilliant Friendis the adaptation of the first volume of a quartet of novels by Elena Ferrante. (Elena Ferrante is a pen name, she protects her privacy).

Each volume of the four Neapolitan novels is planned to become eight episodes of television, a mammoth 32 episodes in all. Ferrante has become an international literary sensation and having personally succumbed to ‘Ferrante fever’ I started watching this first series with high expectations. It was also with trepidation fearing the screen version wouldn’t be able to do justice to the original novels. 
The story begins in present day Turin. Elena Greco is a celebrated writer. Elena is in her mid-sixties and has had a phone call which woke her in the middle of the night. Lila, her ‘brilliant friend’ since childhood has vanished. Elena is angry because she thinks by disappearing without trace, Lila has tried to erase their past life. 

Elena ‘sees’ Lila as a child sitting opposite her in the dark study of her modern apartment. The image of Lila prompts Elena to open her laptop and write about the competitiveness of their friendship : “I promised you I’d never do it but now I’m really angry, and so I’ll write your whole story, not just what I saw but what I know and what you told me, everything you told me over the years. This time I’m going to go all the way too and we’ll see who wins.”

We are transported back to their early days growing up in the insular small town poverty of post-war Naples. The first scenes occur in an early primary school classroom where the intense contrast between the fearless Lila (Ludovica Nasti) and the demure, admiring Elena (Elisa Del Genio) is played out.

This is a handsome production true to the novel, perhaps in part because Ferrante is credited as one of the screenplay writers. The Italian director Saverio Costanzo has led a skilled team who have put flesh on a large cast of beautifully written characters. They have treated the original stories with due reverence. It’s gratifying to see the sizeable cast of characters emerge off the pages and find physical form.

The visual style is inspired by post-war Italian neo-realist directors (the early films of De Sica, Rossellini and Visconti*) and is achieved here in many ways. The filmmakers chose an Italian language with Neapolitan dialect (and English subtitles) which delivers real authenticity.

The casting of inexperienced performers who comprise the nine neighbouring families is uncannily faithful. They live in apartments around a crowded courtyard where they can see each other’s washing and witness each other’s humiliations. Though the production design is beautifully detailed, this is no chocolate box historical drama. 

With eight episodes per book, time is granted and care is taken to portray all the tenderness, and wretchedness of family life and relationships in the neighbourhood, the rione. All the particulars of the streets and poverty of post war Naples are captured here in vivid, stark reality but the biggest achievement of this adaptation is in the way it captures the emotional realities of women’s lives. 

The powerful portrayal the of bond between two young women at the heart of My Brilliant Friendis quite unlike the female friendships in that other HBO series, Big Little Lies.The middleclass American women of Monterey California are worlds away. I found the unsentimental reality of Naples quite an antidote to the glossy feminism of Big Little Lies, where issues of the day and the smell of garlic is absent. 

In My Brilliant Friend the friendship between the two little girls develops with such intensity. Their performances, as young girls, then teenagers are extraordinary. Yet we never lose sight of the wider setting so often missing in drama for television. Like the early Italian neo-realist films that dealt with economic injustice and moral concerns of the time, this story takes shape against a climate of gang violence, class division and the desperation of post-war Naples. 

Elena Greco’s education is her to a path escape the rione– the poverty, the confines of patriarchy and the stranglehold of the Camorras. The smart, mischievous Lila Cerullo, is held back because she won’t have Elena’s educational opportunities. Her father responds to Lila’s pleas for costly further schooling by throwing her out of a window.

Through stories and letters that only Elena will see, Lila inspires Elena’s writing career.  They give Elena the confidence to begin. However Lila is unable to escape and will have to find another path to survive. 

Ferrante describes her expansive sentences as “having a cool surface while visible underneath is a magma of unbearable heat”. So it is with this fine adaptation for the screen. A melodrama in the very best sense of the word.
[Winter is the ideal time for TV binge watching. My Brilliant Friend  and Big Little Lies are available with a Foxtel ten-day free trial. Alternatively, you’ll have to wait patiently for the DVD as Foxtel require very long release windows.  For more info and pictures  
click here to go to the official HBO site or Click here to watch the trailer]

*I saw many of the Italian neorealist films courtesy of Bruce Hodsdon at the NFTA in the late 70s and early 80s. Sadly there is no Cinematheque for screenings like this in Sydney. Will it ever happen?

Director Saverio Costanzo, with actors Elisa Del Genio, Margherita Mazzucco, Ludovica Nasti, Gaia at the world premiere in Venice last year.

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