Television

The Willful Child in HBO's 'My Brilliant Friend'

(IMDB)

HBO's My Brilliant Friend feels almost radical for its raw and un-romanticized depiction of female friendship and resistance in all its emotional complexities.

Amid the numerous new dramas that television had to offer in 2018 – from HBO's Sharp Objects to Netflix's Maniac to Amazon's Homecoming My Brilliant Friend (L'amica geniale) premiered in November on HBO without much fanfare. A slow-paced and cinematic series featuring Italian dialogue and English subtitles, My Brilliant Friend is the television adaptation of the eponymous best-selling novel by the pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante – the first in her four-part anthology that covers over 60 years in the lives of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo.

Set in a dire working-class neighborhood outside Naples in the 1950s, My Brilliant Friend feels almost radical for its raw and un-romanticized depiction of female friendship in all its emotional complexities. Director Saverio Costanzo's cinematography features a muted color palette, highlighting dilapidated buildings, dusty roads and children covered in dirt, and thus contributes to the raw feel of the series.

In the span of eight episodes, we see that the relationship between Elena and Lila, which begins to take shape in elementary school, is as loving and supportive as it is fraught with petty jealousies, rivalry, and downright nastiness at times. The girls compete over who gets better grades, who reads more books, and who can learn Latin and Greek first. Much to Elena's frustration, she observes in voiceover narration that Lila "always did the things I was supposed to do before me and better than me."

So that she doesn't fall behind Lila in every department, Elena accepts a date with one of her classmates, not because she likes him but simply because she "wanted a boyfriend before Lila." While they are constantly competing with each other, the girls also share many tender moments of genuine affection for one another: Lila helps Elena understand and read Latin; Lila redacts Elena's first newspaper article; Lila and Elena read Little Women together and plan to write a book of their own with hopes it will lead to their escape from poverty.

TV by AlexAntropov86 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

My Brilliant Friend offers a multifaceted portrait of the lives of two young women struggling to find their voice and place in a deeply sexist and violent environment, where men beat their spouses, parents beat their children, and children beat each other. The evolution of Lila, from a precocious child (played by Ludovica Nasti) to a fierce young adult (in an impressive performance by Gaia Girace), is especially thrilling to watch. Her character embodies the figure of the willful child. Feminist scholar Sara Ahmed notes in 2014's Willful Subjects (Duke University Press) that "the willful child is the one who is disobedient, who will not do as her mother wishes. Willfulness is a diagnosis of the failure to comply with those whose authority is given" (1). In other words, the willful child is recognized as a troublemaker, a problem that needs to be corrected in order to preserve "the familial as well as social order" (ibid: 63).

On the second episode, for example, Lila announces to her parents that she will take the admissions test to go on to middle school with or without their permission – at a time when children were expected to start working soon after completing their elementary education. "I'm going to school. I don't give a damn," says Lila. This act of defiance sends her dad, Don Fernando, into a fit of rage, who proceeds to beat her and to throw her out the window. With a broken arm, Lila insists, "I'm not hurt," while Fernando continues to shout: "Look what you made me do, you little bitch!" "You were born to spite me!" Violence is thus "rationalized". Don Fernando seeks to beat the will out of Lila in order to shape her into an obedient daughter who will work, get married, and start a family.

Ahmed further explains that to be willful is to be persistent: "Willfulness involves persistence in the face of having been brought down, where simply to 'keep going' or to 'keep coming up' is to be stubborn and obstinate. Mere persistence can be an act of disobedience" (ibid: 2). Lila's willfulness is evident throughout the series as she persists in getting an education. She secretly studies Latin and Greek and spends her days at the local library reading literature. When her will falters, Elena (played with quiet force by Margherita Mazzucco) is there for her to encourage her to keep going and to keep fighting.

Margherita Mazzucco as teenage Elena and Gaia Girace as teenage Lila

(©Eduardo Castaldo/HBO / IMDB)

Paradoxically, Elena is also a painful reminder of what Lila will never be able to accomplish. Unlike Lila's parents, Elena's father grants her the opportunity to attend middle school and high school. Lila's pain is palpable in one heartbreaking scene on the final episode, when Lila is planning her wedding and Elena asks her to revise her first article for her school's paper. After redacting it, Lila turns to Elena and says: "You really are good. But I don't want to read anything more of what you write." With a puzzled look, Elena asks why. Lila softly responds: "Because it hurts me." The hurt is due to her lack of choices, her lack of opportunities to become something more than just a housewife.

While Lila accepts the fact that she has to get married to please her parents, she does not lose her willful spirit. For example, Don Fernando wants Lila to marry Marcello Solara (Elvis Esposito) – one of the wealthiest families in the neighborhood – but Lila repeatedly rejects his advances. In one scene on the fifth episode, Don Fernando tells Lila: "I advise you to say yes. Not just for you, but for the whole family." Nunzia, his wife, agrees: "You need to think about your life, but about us, too." Lila responds that she'll rather die than to marry Marcello. Visibly irritated, Don Fernando tells her: "You'll do as I say," and slaps her. Lila stands her ground and shouts: "No! Not even if you kill me."

An aspect to note here is that shouting, as Ahmed points out, can be a form of "rebellious noise" (ibid: 156). Women may find themselves shouting "in frustration at the difficulty of getting through" (ibid), of being heard. Every time Lila says no – to her father, to Marcello – she insists on exerting her will and getting what she wants.

Ahmed further notes that the willful child is the one who refuses to reproduce the family: "The child must not only become part of the family, a willing member… but as part must become a point, willing to extend the family line, to assemble a new body" (ibid: 113). She continues, "To be willful is thus to refuse what we might call 'the reproductive duty,' as the duty of a part to reproduce the whole or at least to be willing to participate in reproduction" (ibid: 114). In other words, children are expected to reproduce in order to keep the family together, and by extension the nation.

Lila's parents and brother describe her on numerous occasions as "rude", "difficult", a "bitch", and as "always making trouble", because she is perceived to be unwilling to go along with her family's wishes. She is perceived to be getting in the way of the family's opportunity to climb the social ladder and attain happiness. Lila ultimately does get married, but to a man that she chooses and genuinely loves – a small victory for her, considering her limited circumstances.

HBO and the Italian broadcaster RAI announced in December that My Brilliant Friend would be renewed for a second season and would be based on Ferrante's second installment of her Neapolitan anthology, The Story of a New Name. The story of the complicated lives and friendship of Elena and Lila soldiers on, like the brave protagonists, and should not be missed.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.