The first season of My Brilliant Friend, the excellent HBO adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, introduced viewers to Lila and Lenu, two bright little girls in 1950s Naples whose paths diverge when Lenu’s family allows her to enter middle school and Lila’s does not. In the second season, which premieres March 16th, the girls — now young women — discover that in order to wiggle out of the narrow constraints of poor women’s lives in postwar Italy, they’re going to have to get creative. Decades later, it’s a message that resonates with any woman who has a pulse and a WiFi connection. Where does women’s anger come from? And where does it go? My Brilliant Friend shows us, step by step.
The act of creation — of conjuring something into being — is at the forefront of this gorgeous and gripping new season, subtitled The Story of a New Name. New stores and apartment buildings rise from the ground; babies are born; art is made. And with different tools at their disposal, Lila and Lenu (Gaia Girace and Margherita Mazzucco) each attempt to construct an independent life.
Early in the season, Lila is furiously organizing the shiny new grocery store that her husband Stefano (Giovanni Amura) has opened, shouting instructions and hoisting crates onto shelves — “a violent, definitive outburst,” Lenu’s voiceover narration explains, “to free her mind and body of pent-up energy.” The source of that pent-up energy is Lila’s discovery, at the end of the first season, that her new husband, along with her brother Rino (Gennaro De Stefano), has gone behind her back and made a deal with the criminal Solara brothers, who essentially own the neighborhood. Now, they also own a pair of special shoes that Lila designed and Rino made — shoes that Stefano promised to treasure forever. They plan to use Lila’s designs and Rino’s craftsmanship to open a fancy new shoe store.
Lila learned of her husband’s betrayal at her wedding reception; emotionally, the relationship was over before it really began. But, this season, 16-year-old Lila’s reluctance to consummate the marriage is shoved aside. On their wedding night, Stefano slaps her hard across the face before he rapes her, and as she stops thrashing in resistance, her eyes go glassy and hard, and she stares blankly into the distance.
The scene echoes another in the first episode of Season Two, when Lenu, in a fit of adolescent impatience, leads her boyfriend to a deserted corner of the neighborhood and tries to initiate sex. Pleased with her affection, he assumes she wants to be engaged, and slides her hand down to his pants instead; they’ll have to wait till they’re married. As Lenu obliges, her vacant gaze wanders across the concrete landscape, and the camera follows. This is her sexual education — the understanding that her pleasure doesn’t matter.
Again and again this season, characters’ inner lives are beautifully conveyed without words. In one scene, Lenu brings Lila to a party hosted by one of her teachers, who lives with her teenage children in a grand old house filled with books and art. While Lenu and Lila wear crisp frocks, their hair in formal updos, the bohemian, upper-class girls are dressed more casually, and wear their hair long and loose. Lila stiffly hangs back while the others dance, a perfect visual metaphor for how the rich kids get to be kids while the poor ones claw their way up to adulthood — to stability — as fast as they can.
Although Lenu’s narration punctuates the series, My Brilliant Friend communicates between glances what would take pages of inner monologue to express. It’s a testament to the show’s feat of world-building, and the masterful efforts of its actors, that this wordless broadcasting of emotion completely clicks.
For all their shouting and public quarrelling, the neighborhood kids rarely open up to each other. By patiently tracking characters’ gazes and closing in on their expressions, the direction (by Saverio Costanzo, with the exception of two episodes this season helmed by Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher) adds to the stifling sense that they all know each other’s business but can’t put it into words; that they all feel oppressed by the inevitabilities of their lives, but can’t share this frustration with each other.
The brilliance of the series, and the books, is how it ties these feelings of frustration and powerlessness to the act of creation, suggesting that it is not a choice but a necessity born of circumstance. Suppressed female rage, after all, has to go somewhere. While Lenu makes art out of life, eventually writing autobiographical novels, Lila’s act of creation is life itself — her refusal to live under the thumb of male dominance forces her to create space for the kind of woman she wants to be, and the kind of life she wants to make possible.
When the Solara brothers open the shoe store, they insist on hanging a photo of Lila in her wedding dress in the shop. She refuses before striking a compromise — she’ll alter the photo until it suits her. In a scene with almost no dialogue, Lila goes to work making a collage out of the photo, aided by Lenu, who observes her friend’s efforts with pleasure. “I felt she was seeing something that was not there,” she says in voiceover, “and that she was working so we could see it, too.”
What’s amazing is that a story set so long ago can track so closely to today. The election of Donald Trump and the fallout from the Me Too movement have been particularly painful reminders of the ways, big and small, women remain dominated by men and stifled in their actions and speech. Despite all the gains we’ve made, this fundamental reality remains. The lesson the women of My Brilliant Friend learn — that the only way to escape this reality is to be the architect of a different one — is one women appear destined to discover, generation after generation.