HBO’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’ Season Two Paints a Furious Portrait of a Lady on Fire
The second season of HBO’s Elena Ferrante adaptation sharpens what the first season often did well, by loading the frame with the claustrophobic intensity and attention to detail.
In the first episode of My Brilliant Friend’s second season, which premiered on HBO Monday night, Lila, the headstrong protagonist and shoe designer, sits down to dinner with her new husband, Stefano. They are on their honeymoon, eating in a restaurant with cloth napkins, gilded furnishings, and an elderly, bow-tied pianist. People are enjoying themselves; Lila is not. When we last saw her, at the wedding, Lila had just learned that her husband had given a pair of shoes—the ones she had made with her own hands over the course of months—to Marcello Solara, the mobster to whom she was once engaged and hates more than anyone, effectively ending their marriage the night it began. As Lila stares at her husband, Stefano appears not to notice. His posture is all artifice and fake cheer, as he tears into a plate of shrimp. “I don’t usually like shrimp, but these are special,” Stefano says. “The fish is so fresh.” The shot follows Lila’s line of sight to his thick fingers ripping off its legs, squirting juice.
Like the season before it, the latest installment of My Brilliant Friend, an Italian language drama created by Saverio Costanza, follows the story of anonymous author Elena Ferrante’s four bestselling Neapolitan Novels, picking up at the start of the second book, The Story of a New Name. When the first season debuted, Costanza drew both criticism and praise for how closely he had hewn to Ferrante’s text, in which an older woman, also named Elena, recounts the story of her devoted, but fraught friendship with Lila and their life in 1950s post-war Naples. “The show takes an old-fashioned approach, by sublimating itself to its literary source,” New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum wrote in her review, “like a caring translator who will illuminate but won’t impose.” But rendering Ferrante’s text on screen posed a greater challenge than most adaptations, in part because much of the novels’ tension emerges from Elena’s obsessive, churning, furious voice; her near-psychic awareness of Lila’s every thought; her ability to move from short, declarative observations to barely punctuated monologues of raging interior life.
The first season pared down that narration to an occasional voiceover, recreating texture instead through a treacly and over-the-top score, meticulous costumes whose “stylized shabbiness and sumptuous austerity,” as Troy Patterson put it, looked “like a Prada ad for working-class gloom,” and cinematography so rich that it seemed to clash with the abject poverty it portrayed. In the second season, much of that dissonance is gone, in part because both Lila and Elena have ascended in social class—the former by marrying into Stefano’s wealthy family; the latter by continuing her studies into high school—and the string-heavy music has been toned down. Instead, the second season sharpens what the first season often did well, by loading the frame with the claustrophobic intensity and attention to detail that might have been lost without Elena’s narration.
In the dining room scene, Lila’s fury, her utter disbelief at Stefano’s betrayal, is laid bare not with words, but small detail shots highlighting how her husband eats, smacks his food, gulps from his glass of wine. In the book, Ferrante keeps her description of dinner simple: “They ordered all kinds of things, ate almost nothing, drank a lot of wine.” But with the shrimp, Stefano’s stilted conversation, and his crass table manners, Costanza goes beyond Ferrante’s scene to capture her less visible observations: Lila’s physical repulsion, her hatred of the man she has just married. The shots are also pregnant with foreshadowing. As Stefano decimates his shrimp, Lila stares at her utensils. “Business is doing well,” he says, grotesquely. “We can have what we want.” The camera wanders down to the prongs of a slender, gold lobster fork (in the book, it is a knife). Later that night, after the couple returns to their hotel room, Stefano will brutally rape her. The camera will cut from Lila’s vacant face to her small foot, jostling under his weight.
There are moments like this throughout the second season. When Lila returns from the honeymoon with a black eye, no one in her family mentions it. Instead, at another dinner, she sits at the table quietly, staring down her husband, father, and brother, all of whom have betrayed her. The camera frames the three men from her perspective, sitting in a row. In one long, tense shot, each man’s gaze wanders around the room, landing briefly on the camera, before looking quickly away. In another scene, Lila explodes in anger at Elena’s insinuation that she should get pregnant, listing off the miseries of their friends who have children: “The very idea of getting pregnant,” Lila announces, “disgusts me.” The camera settles on her hand, touching her stomach.
At first, the shot seems too literal, but when Elena leaves and walks onto the street, she starts to see hands—and mothers—everywhere. She runs into one of the women Lila named, then a storekeeper with a baby, then kids crying in the street. As Elena stares, the camera cuts to mothers picking vegetables, mothers chewing, mothers screaming, pushing wheelbarrows, and scolding toddlers as they buy soup from a street vendor. In a voiceover, Costanza paraphrases narration from the book, using the detail shots to capture Lila’s logic. The mothers have lost their feminine qualities, Elena observes, “consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble.” As she wonders where this transformation begins (“with pregnancy, with housework, with being beaten?”), the camera hones in on dirty hands, gesturing hands, praying hands, fingers scraping at faces, limbs that have been worn away by work. “I suddenly realized that without being aware of it I had tapped into Lila’s feelings,” Elena says. “She was engaged in a mysterious fight to destroy the life Stefano wanted at all costs to fit her into.”
A frequent criticism of the first season was that its focus on moments like this—of blending visuals and voiceover to unlock Lila’s interiority—came at the expense of Elena’s, the mind through which all four novels are filtered. That remains true of the second season, though there are moments of clarity (in one scene, Elena’s unrealized desire to kiss her schoolboy crush plays out in her shadow against a wall). But Costanza’s agile camerawork plays best when illuminating that mysterious fight, Lila’s self-immolation. In one of the most mesmerizing scenes of the season, Stefano visits the shoe shop where Lila’s designs are sold. Michele Solara, the brother of Lila’s despised ex-fiancé and the store’s primary financier, is furious Lila has not come for their meeting. As the two men argue, they stand before a large photograph of Lila, taken on her wedding day. The portrait had been a long-standing subject of tension between Stefano, the Solaras, and Lila, who had not wanted her image in their shop. Lila eventually relented, but only after slicing it up so much that her face was barely visible. “She completed her own self-destruction in an image,” Ferrante writes in the book, “All you could see, at the top, was a very vivid eye, encircled by midnight blue and red.”
In the shoe store, the camera looks down onto the meeting from the eye of the portrait. Stefano and Michele stand in the foreground. A fisheye effect curves the shot; the men seem to consume the whole screen. “Your wife is indispensable, you have to make her come,” Michele insists. Stefano pauses. He looks up at the camera, where his wife’s eyes would be, where the viewer’s are, and then back down. “She’ll do what she wants,” he says, “as usual.” When two men walk outside to argue, one of the shopkeepers screams. Out of nowhere, the portrait has caught on fire. Michele rushes to extinguish it with his coat. But the flame has already burned away what remained of Lila’s face, leaving just a charred hole.