It’s been more than twenty years since I visited Italy in person and lately I’ve felt an itch to return. It’s an easy place to get hooked on. The timeless beauty, the mellifluous language, the ancient history… and did I mention the food? My god, the food. I can almost taste it now as I type this. There’s something truly magical about Bella Italia.
In an effort to satiate a bit of that longing, my better half, Lady C, and I have been visiting Naples via HBOMax in the form of the stunning and luxurious My Brilliant Friend. Based on the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, the story follows two girls as they grow up in 1950’s Naples.
The show is, in a word, remarkable.
First, because they pull off the trick of changing primary cast members. When we first meet the subjects of the story, Elena “Lenu” Greco and Lila Cerullo, they’re played by eleven-year-old child actors Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti.
As the story unfolds they’re replaced by teenage actors, played by fifteen-year-old Margherita Mazzucco, and fourteen-year-old Gaia Girace.
I’m astounded at the ages of these actors, especially considering that none of the four were actors before the show began to shoot. The performances would be jaw-dropping for seasoned actors, but to come from proverbial amateurs? It’s staggering.
Director Saverio Costanzo reportedly scoured the schools and playgrounds of Naples looking for children with just the right look to bring Ferrente’s vision to the screen. It’s both a credit to his eye and his good fortune when we see just how well he succeeded.
My Brilliant Friend is the kind of show that grabs you and refuses to let go. Deeply honest, painfully honest at times, it lingers with you during the day and you find yourself musing about the lives of Lenu and Lila while you’re working. It also has that wonderful ability to swallow the viewer whole, and transport you completely into 1950’s Napoli.
The lighting, the sets, the music, the writing, the editing, the directing. All of it is spot on and builds what feels like a sweeping, multi-decade tale out of what begins as a fairly small conceit. There were scenes so moving and frankly so disturbing, that I would have to take a break between episodes and pace around the living room to blow off steam as Lady C laughed and poked fun at me.
“This is nothing for a woman, what you’re seeing.” She would say. “These obstacles, this level of unfairness? We live it every day.” That’s how immersive the show is.
I don’t want to give too much of the show away, so let me just say that it’s a hidden treasure and I’m thrilled that HBO has picked it up for another season, even though we’ll once again have to adjust to the cast reportedly being changed again. It’s not often that you watch a show with that much honesty and character.
So, if you’re not opposed to subtitles and can hang with the cosmopolitan pacing of the story, My Brilliant Friend is a must-watch. You can find it on HBOMax.
If you don’t have HBO and you’re still jonesing for some acclaimed foreign films to scratch that international itch? We have a great selection for free at Plex.
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