My Brilliant Friend (‘L’amica geniale’) was a seminal work of fiction which took the publishing world by storm and became a worldwide literary phenomenon. This story of two girls growing up in a tough neighbourhood in Naples, Italy which starts its timeline somewhere near the middle of the last century became such a publishing marvel that its anonymous author (Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym) became the subject of numerous literary investigations trying to unearth her true identity. There have been some concrete leads in that direction but the point of this story or this review is not that and if the author wishes to remain in the background it surely is a prerogative to be respected, at least so that she will keep producing such lovely work. There are four books in the series, but the one I read and the one which I recently saw the TV adaptation of was the first one with the same title as the show. Suffice to say, the show more than lived up to my expectations in creating a wondrously populated recreation of the story with almost perfect casting.
As in the book, the book opens in the present day, with the frantic exchange between one of the protagonists, Elena, and the son of the other protagonist (Lila). Lila is missing and this sets Elena off on her reminisces and she starts to narrate her growing up years in the gritty, poverty ridden neighbourhood of Naples where she grew up. It’s a place with a sense of rigid hierarchy both within the family and outside of it. Violence and loud spats are commonplace and pretty much accepted as a way of life. Residents are mostly living from paycheck to paycheck and girls being educated beyond primary school is still a novel concept. It is in such an environment that the young Elena or Lenu (a lovely, vulnerable Elisa del Genio) comes across Lila Cerullo (an equally well cast Ludovica Nasti) in her classroom. From the start she is intrigued and slightly threatened by Lila’s apparent intelligence and spunk. Over the next few months, the two form a careful but strong bond which would last them for much longer than they could have ever imagined. The vagaries of childhood friendships are shown in all their hues, as the two kids stick by each other in fights and keep their own secrets. A telling portion in the book and faithfully represented in the series is the one where they both decide to skip school and visit the sea, which they haven’t seen before. The change in the emotional makeup of each and the subtle shift in equations between them provides a probable pointer to the paths each would end up taking in life.
For, while both are bright students, it is only one who will get the chance to further her schooling. Lila, despite her obvious smarts and the entreaties from her teacher and brother, is forced to drop out of school after primary school by her shoemaker father who just cannot see past the age old tradition of not letting young girls study more than is needed especially when just getting by is a tough job in the hard neighborhood. After a brief period of rebellion, Lila settles down with her father and brother to work in the family shoe-making business, while Elena continues her studies, much to the pride of her father and bewildered grumpiness of her mother.
After a couple of episodes, the story moves ahead a few years and we are re-introduced to Elena (Margherita Mazzucco) and Lila (Gaia Girace) as teenagers and women on the cusp of adulthood. Lila is working in the family shoe store with her brother, RIno, and her father while Elena is struggling through school. Lila’s pull is an ever present in Elena’s life and she still feels the need for validation from her for the work she does. Lila and Rino though, have grand designs on a special shoe they are building, unbeknownst to their father, who detests the suggestion of an upmarket shoe for their neighbourhood. However, the girls have other worries slowly creeping up on them, including the welcome and sometimes unwelcome attention of young men trying to court them. A couple of these, the Solara brothers, are a bunch of hoodlums who are among the most influential and richest of the neighbourhood and usually have their way with the young ladies. That is until they meet Lila, whose defiance inspires love in one of the brothers and a noose starts tightening around Lila as his attentions take in the eager affections of her starry-eyed parents. But there is another young rich man, Stefano Caracci, whose father was a notorious and well-off don of the quarter before his death at the hands of one of his numerous enemies in the initial episodes. Stefano also finds himself falling for Lila and slowly a tentative change to her circumstances start creeping up on Lila.
Elena, meanwhile, has her own share of growing up to do, but irrespective of however much her schoolwork gets praised, there is a lingering sense of dissatisfaction if Lila doesn’t approve. Her romantic awakening is more prosaic and less fulfilling than her friend’s and also includes an unsavoury incident at a holiday home where she stayed as a help while vacationing herself. But, as in all lifelong friendships forged at a tender age, the girls know that ultimately, each is there for the other and is perhaps the only one who completely understands.
When I was reading the novel, I don’t think I had any particular picture in mind for the actors, but the casting is so beautifully spot on that there can be no complaints for any fans of the book. The neighborhood in all its gritty and complexity is shown with brilliant clarity and the supporting actors populating the various roles are so real in their demeanor that it looks like they have walked into screen truly from the time and place the story is set it. But it’s especially in the leads that the casting people have aced it. Both as children and then young girls, the actresses chosen for the roles so perfectly fit their fictional counterpart that they become these ladies. Elena is just as she is written, a vulnerable and heart-rending sweet girl but who hides a layer of quiet resolve beneath that tender exterior while Lila, Elena’s brilliant friend, exudes all the enigmatic charm and righteous spunk that would drive many a young man to heartbreak. Together they truly are brilliant friends, and they are the heartbeat of this show which is one of those rare outings on the screen which equals the brilliance of the book.