Launching merely as an evocative sliver of a sliver, the first two hours of HBO's My Brilliant Friend — one-fifth of the show's first season, which will itself encompass only a quarter of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels — premiered this weekend at the 2018 Venice Film Festival.
Neither a wholly representative snapshot of the ambitious TV series coming to HBO in November nor exactly an effective standalone two-hour feature, this limited sampling points to a handsome, largely dedicated Ferrante adaptation that, at least in this early going, is marked by spectacular casting of its inexperienced leads.
My Brilliant Friend opens with 60-something Elena answering a panicked late-night call. This maintains the structure of Ferrante's books — and also, thankfully, its Italian language, when one can easily imagine an American cable network asking recognizable Hollywood stars to attempt this in accented English. Elena's lifelong friend Lila is missing and has been gone for two months, leaving no trace. As an act of poetic revenge mirroring their relationship, Elena decides not to let Lila have the last word and sits down to recount a shared history adding, "I'll write your whole story, not just what I saw."
On Elena's words, the story flashes back to 1950s Naples, introducing Elena (Elisa Del Genio) and Lila (Ludovica Nasti) as grade-schoolers. Elena is blonde, polite and smart. Lila is dusky, unruly and brilliant, threatening Elena's established position at the top of every class. They bond quickly, but unsteadily, over a shared understanding of the fragility of being young, exceptional and female in a hermetically sealed blue- collar neighborhood dominated by male violence, ambition and insecurity. A coming-of-age story ensues.
The opening episodes, written by Ferrante, Francesco Piccolo, Laura Paolucci and Saverio Costanzo, with Costanzo (In Memory of Me) directing, stick closely to Ferrante's loose, illustrative vignettes from tenement life and adhere wisely to the elder Elena's dictum from the book, "I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: It was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don't recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad."
As directed by Costanzo and beautifully shot by Fabio Cianchetti, My Brilliant Friend is blissfully neither rooted in a gauzy nostalgia nor mired in an affected documentary-style misery porn. It simply and cleanly embraces the details of everyday life, occasionally dirty or impoverished or ominous, spiked with moments of memory-infused whimsy. This is mirrored in the perfectly blended combination of Italian locations and a neighborhood set apparently built from scratch by production designer Giancarlo Basili, a callback to the story's period when Italian cinema offered the contrasting pleasures of gritty neorealism and the staged artificiality of Cinecitta.
The best scenes, including a terrified confrontation with a local mobster (Antonio Pennarella's Don Achille) and a liberating-yet-ill-fated trip to a sea that's tantalizingly close and entirely foreign to them, lift their visuals and conflicted emotions from the page, matched impeccably by Max Richter's score. It's rare that Costanzo and the writers try to deviate too far from the book, though a little weighted foreshadowing accompanying the girls' shared adoration of Little Women and the authorial dreams that inspires is OK. Fidelity to the source material isn't exclusively a positive and the series relies excessively on narration that fit well in a book but feels redundant in a medium in which most of what the older Elena explains has already been vividly illustrated.
Perhaps the voiceover was included as an insurance policy in case the young actors were limited in their capacity to carry so much of the storytelling on their own. It's an understandable concern yet one that proves unfounded as both Del Genio and Nasti have the unforced naturalism of the best of juvenile neorealist stars or their more recent peers like the kids in Sean Baker's The Florida Project. Even better than Del Genio and Nasti's individual performances — honest, observant and never marred by actorly precociousness — is their work as a pair, blending Del Genio's more placid openness and Nasti's more internalized intensity in friendly, often-wordless interaction that rises above anything to be found in a script. Young Elena and Lila dominate the series' first two hours so completely that none of the other characters in their orbit really stands out, which also means none of them stands out as fake or distracting.
The preadolescent Elena and Lila only have the series to themselves briefly and the two episodes shown in Venice stop immediately before the arrival of the characters' teen incarnations (played by Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace). It's impossible to evaluate the show's overall effectiveness without knowing if the My Brilliant Friend casting team, led by Laura Muccino and Sara Casani, struck gold multiple times. As the characters age and the story opens up beyond the four-story apartments and arching tunnel that serves as its initial border, the actors will face greater challenges and thematic responsibilities. The series' first two hours mark an extraordinarily promising beginning.
Cast: Elisa Del Genio, Ludovica Nasti, Margherita Mazzucco, Gaia Girace, Kristijan Di Giacomo, Giovanni Amura, Valerio Laviano Saggese, Fabrizio Cottone, Giuliana Tramontano, Federica Sollazzo, Francesco Catena, Eduardo Scarpetta
Creators: Elena Ferrante, Francesco Piccolo, Laura Paolucci and Saverio Costanzo from the novels by Elena Ferrante
Director: Saverio Costanzo
Premieres in November on HBO.