There is no way I could write anything about “My Brilliant Friend” without using the ‘I’-voice. Before the COVID age, I found it easiest to read literature while being far away from home. Whether it was business or pleasure, I would take in the city sights by day, do the work which was required of me, and by night I would curl up in my hotel room and devour whatever book I chose for that particular travel. Deciding what to read was sometimes a hard process – I often visited libraries in every new country I went to. I was interested in the new, the transcendent, the uncanny, in feelings and memories that I could later associate to travelling to that specific city.
Sometimes, opportunities presented themselves. In Budapest, I stayed for two days in one of those “by the river” hotels. The nights were quiet, the city lights reflected in the water being the only reason to peer through the large window. When I came upon Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend”, the first novel from her Neapolitan Tetralogy, I immediately took it from the lounge-room shelf where it rested under a “for guests only” sign directly to my room. I had two days to read it. I remember never being able to put the book down once I started it – always carrying it with me, even to dinners and drinks inside the hotel restaurant, reading a few more pages when everybody was checking their phones or just feeling cozy. It didn’t matter to me that I was in Budapest and the plot of the book took place in the Naples of the 1950s. It didn’t matter that I probably looked like a fool, or seemed pretentious. Too much of it just spoke to me, of my particular childhood and my own friends from the neighborhood, the camaraderie, the nostalgia and the unavoidable falling apart, the ‘life got in the way’ reality of adulthood. Reading about Elena and Lila’s experiences growing up, being surrounded by hardship, poverty and discrimination, but always able to overcome it by using the power of imagination, was like a bridge to the past, because to my friends, I realized I had been ‘the Lila’, with quite a bit of ‘the Elena’ thrown in. The story’s appeal was universal. Other than losing a beloved family member some years before, nothing bad had ever happened to me yet.
One of my first memories from early childhood was listening to a cassette tape featuring Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’. It was not my first exposure to music, but it was the first ‘album’ I returned to whenever I found myself idling by – pushing the play button, rewinding the tape to listen to ‘Spring’ again and again, then just listening to the entire thing. Later on, we formed a group, all the kids from the nearby blocks and our own street coming together, playing soccer, sitting and talking about hip-hop and our beefs with rival groups from different neighbouhoods. We were all poor, but we weren’t THAT poor – we were living in the 1990s, in Romania. Everyone was poor, but after the traumatizing events of 1989, it was like parents realized that the most important thing in their lives were the young ones. So whenever we would lose a soccer ball, one of us would be able to quickly scrounge up the money required for a new one. We had little idea of what our parents really sacrificed for us.
My friends called me nicknames because I was uncoordinated and sluggish at soccer, but they respected that I did well in school, even called me a genius, and told me I could change the world if I wanted to. That didn’t stop them from administering a holy beating whenever our egos clashed – children can be like that, both peaceful and vicious. I remember having to fight back, but hating it – violence was sometimes necessary to restore a state of peace, to restore the sense of community, and one thing I knew even then was that you sometimes had be the craziest kid at the table for others to respect you, or else you would be the one bullied. You could either do that by random acts of violence, or get creative and having others believe your crazy stories: be the Scheherazade. But sometimes, just when you thought you were safe, someone could break a beer bottle on your head anyway.
After a pretty turbulent period in high-school, I decided to opt for computer programming as a career, but more at the behest of my family rather than anything else (I had wanted to pursue art, philosophy, writing, but I was quickly convinced of the financial hardships that would ensue and opted for a comfortable future life – I was being more Elena than Lila in those moments.)
Returning to “My Brilliant Friend” – both the book and the HBO series are about two young women growing up in a vibrant, but gritty neighborhood filled with larger than life characters – a traumatized widow, a wandering poet, a brutish business owner, and their own families and connections. Lila is, from the start, shown to be a wild child and a child prodigy – decades ahead of her peers when it comes to understanding how things work – while Elena does well in school and is set on becoming a writer. Lila adopts a tough persona, shines in several areas but has to drop out of school because of her family’s tough living conditions. She ends up using her imagination anyway, to try to survive. Meanwhile, Elena does have the means to continue her education, and the book really describes what it meant to be an intellectual and a young woman, while always living in your friend’s shadow. The two are the closest friends you can imagine, but at times they’re bitter enemies. True friendship can be like that sometimes.
If you have read the books, or just the first book (like I did – when I returned to my country, I immediately bought the other three books, but never got around to reading them), and you’re having any doubts about the HBO show being able to put Elena Ferrante transcendental moments into ‘film images’, don’t be: the show feels different at times (the fireworks attack in season one, for example, cannot ever surpass a reader’s own imagining of the events leading up to it), but it is an extremely faithful adaptation, and it reunites some of Italian cinema’s biggest talents: Saverio Costanzo, director of the deceptively similar “The Solitude of Prime Numbers”, Alice Rohrwacher (the mastermind behind “Happy as Lazzaro” and “Corpo Celeste”), even Paolo Sorrentino credited as producer, while Alba Rohrwacher provides the narration, Ferrante herself being one of the writers. To say that together they’re a match for the show’s tricky balance of spiritual drama, tragedy and chronicling of events is an understatement. Just have a look at the opening credits for the first two seasons:
From the start, one notices that in those credits, Elena and Lila are eclipsed by by the sheer number of secondary characters and their emergent stories, and later they’re eclipsed by the notion of power, and those who wield it – the Solara brothers, the ones who really control and own most part of the neighborhood, appear in stark contrast to the other characters, and the harsh realities of the world begin to intrude on Elena and Lila’s close friendship.
Eventually, their lives take different roads – they diverge, then they intersect again briefly, while the world around them constantly evolves. Elena’s life is that of intellectual and romantic disappointments. Lila’s is a life of constant pain, abuse, disgust and nausea, because of repeatedly trying to build something that only makes sense to her at first, failing, and then getting up and trying to build something even more ambitious.
You might have already noticed, when watching the opening credits, the phrase ‘music by Max Richter’. Richter is a German composer, one of the most well-known faces of the modern-classical world, and perhaps the greatest fit for the show: in 2012, he recomposed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, by discarding 75% of the original composition and focusing on loops, managing to hone in on the essence. (For someone who grew up with Vivaldi, Richter’s work is miraculous, transcendental, and just unpredictable and delightful, even if for some it might be too postmodern, or just too modern.)
His work on the soundtrack for “My Brilliant Friend” is, in its most intense moments, quite similar to his Vivaldi recompositions, or his work on the movie “Ad Astra”. Piercing, dramatic violin solos joining other voices in recurring patterns and daring explosions, releases of bubbling tension. Soul-crushing, sweeping, mourning violin pieces underlining the tragic moments. Grandiose orchestra hits and soaring transitions to depict the passage of time and the constant transformations the characters go through. In the quieter moments, the OST recalls Richter’s earlier piano works.
Violinist Daniel Hope talks about Max Richter and his Vivaldi recompositions in the following terms:
“His problem, he explained, was not with the music, but how we have treated it. We are subjected to it in supermarkets, elevators or when a caller puts you on hold. Like many of us, he was deeply fond of the “Seasons” but felt a degree of irritation at the music’s ubiquity. He told me that because Vivaldi’s music is made up of regular patterns, it has affinities with the seriality of contemporary postminimalism, one style in which he composes. Therefore, he said, the moment seemed ideal to reimagine a new way of hearing it. I had always shied away from recording Vivaldi’s original. There are simply too many other versions already out there. But Mr. Richter’s reworking meant listening again to what is constantly new in a piece we think we are hearing when, really, we just blank it out.”
“It was incredibly thought-provoking, I had to deal with all the curveballs Max throws at you, the way he does things you don’t expect. What really threw me was the first movement of Autumn. He pulls the rhythm around, starts dropping quavers here and there. You end up with a rickety and slightly one-legged Vivaldi. It’s incredibly funny. But even in poking fun at the original, there’s always enormous respect. It’s really out of this world, It’s as if an alien has picked it up and pulled it through a time warp. It’s really eerie: Max has kept Vivaldi’s melody, but it’s pulled apart by the ethereal harmonics underneath it.”
There are currently two Max Richter albums released, for the first two seasons of “My Brilliant Friend”. The first one, which you can listen to below, was released in 2018:
From this first album, “Elena and Lila” is a minimalist piano composition which is set to the beginning of the series, when an adult Elena finds out her former best friend has disappeared. The song grows into heart-stirring finale, and “Whispers” is perhaps the most well-known composition for the show, a series of ups and downs, peaceful moments overlapping with small tragedies that are described by Atwood Magazine as “The narrative of My Brilliant Friend (being) translated from Italian to English to Screen to Score. A feat that seems nearly impossible, each iteration, each variation has provided a new articulation of the story’s original essence.“
For the second season, Richter adopts a quieter, even more minimal, almost ambient-like direction. That whole season is almost like a snow-globe: Lila shocks at every turn while Elena is forced to cover for her, while being helped in turn by Lila to understand some of the more difficult aspects of her education; there is a feeling of relative safety in season two, of time standing still, but the potential for tragedy exists behind every corner. In retrospect, it’s great that Richter has chosen to import the more somber “Winter 2” from his 2012 work into this OST, and what impresses most is his 10-minute closer to the album, “Moth-Like Stars”, a composition which is both calm and extremely disquieting, coming off the heels of Elena coming into her own, and Lila’s complete separation from everyone at the end of season two.
Season three, starting this February, has debuted with two magnificent episodes already. After the betrayal that splintered their friendship, Elena publishes a book describing the events that led her to an academic life, and because the book is labeled ‘obscene’ by critics, and its author a ‘libertine’, she is no longer welcomed in the Naples neighborhood she grew up in. Student riots, and violent clashes between communists and fascists are the norm, while the working class suffers under extreme working conditions. Lila, having chosen to live with platonic friend Enzo (a similar character, almost able to match her genius), is now working at a meat factory.
There are two great moments in each of the two episodes that will surely end up as some of the year’s best in television: in the first, Elena hallucinates the entire town of Naples as an angry mob, carrying newspapers citing her brazen adventures, over Max Richer’s ‘Spring 1’. This time, Richter focuses on rebirth and imports yet another of his Vivaldi recompositions – a new society is blooming from the ashes on an old one, and students and professors are at the forefront, their efforts focused on equal rights and justice.
The second episode, however, does away with the illusions from the first – the world inhabited by the intellectuals is an echo chamber, incapable of grasping the realities of the true working class. Lila is abused, becomes ill, and gets acquainted (once more) with the ugliness of shadow-power structures. Her lying down near a river, completely broken, might be a harrowing moment in the show’s history, but is offset by earlier scenes depicting her brilliance, like her using a door to illustrate a binary circuit and talking about improving factories by using algorithms from computer programming (‘everything we do is an algorithm‘). Lila will soon, together with Enzo, attempt to launch a true revolution akin to that of “Halt and Catch Fire”, as she learns about “systems intercommunicating: where a system’s boundary points lie; in which direction information flows; what responsibility each part has in the functioning of the whole” while the world outside is still relying on violence in order to bring about change.
It is the actors at the core of “My Brilliant Friend”, alongside the brilliant directing, stunning imagery and musical delights that make it into one of the modern TV masterpieces: Margherita Mazzuco is a great Elena, wide-eyed but disappointed at every turn, receiving small dents in her armor but not losing her faith, while Gaia Giraco as Lila relies on a more Sartrean-existentialist performance which is simply spellbinding, her anger palpable, her disgust towards abusive power structures manifesting in creative attempts at subverting them, with her physical and mental health being in the balance. When she smiles, it’s because of Elena (‘who am I if you’re not good?’, Lila asks while recalling her major contribution to Elena’s education, but also wanting to maintain her hold on her friend).
At its core, the series is really about loneliness. When they’re apart, Elena and Lila are lonely, or “alone together” with someone else, be it their companions, husbands, friends or family who don’t understand them. They only find understanding by being close to one another, and the closeness brings them comfort, before they’re pulled apart again and again by cruel twists of fate. Simply put, “My Brilliant Friend” is a brilliant adaptation, one which will certainly be your close friend in the COVID era and bring forth strong emotions. It rarely strikes a false chord, and it reminds us of the importance of understanding one another.
After reading the book over those two days, I put it back on the “for guests only” shelf before I left the hotel. I didn’t want to steal it, although I’m sure not many people would have noticed it being gone. I didn’t want to own it, like some people fool themselves into believing they can own words in any way. Like with any great work of literature, I was still busy separating those words from my own experiences, re-drawing borders, thinking with my new mind.
Featured image is “It Didn’t Stop” by Tracey Emin.
“Leave, instead. Get away for good, far from the life we’ve lived since birth. Settle in well-organized lands where everything really is possible. I had fled, in fact. Only to discover, in the decades to come, that I had been wrong, that it was a chain with larger and larger links: the neighborhood was connected to the city, the city to Italy, Italy to Europe, Europe to the whole planet. And this is how I see it today: it’s not the neighborhood that’s sick, it’s not Naples, it’s the entire earth, it’s the universe, or universes. And shrewdness means hiding and hiding from oneself the true state of things.” – Elena Ferrante, “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay”