Wednesday, December 12, 2018

My take on the 8th episode of the HBO series My Brilliant Friend

This episode is a powerful portrayal of Lila’s story. Her courage and self-possession can make the viewer easily forget she is only sixteen years old. We see her growing anxiety about her engagement to Stefano, her increasing awareness that she is about to foreclose options in life through an early marriage, and on the day of her wedding, her realization that she had made a terrible mistake.

The episode is less successful with Elena’s story, revealing the limitations of film which cannot easily simultaneously portray the drama of the wedding and Elena’s ruminations about what the wedding means to her. Elena experiences the wedding as a turning point in her relationship with Lila and also as a measure of her estrangement from the world of the neighborhood. Elena had become acutely aware of her alienation from the boys of the neighborhood. She had grown up with them, was accustomed to their violent behavior and rough language, but as she advanced from middle school to high school, she had been following every day a path completely unknown to them.

Elena’s mother had assimilated Maestra Oliviero’s message that Elena should keep her distance from these young men. At Lila’s wedding reception, Elena’s mother insisted that she stay away from Antonio, a neighborhood boy who had fallen in love with her, telling her daughter that her parents were not paying for her education in order to have her fall in love with a mere auto mechanic.

In the novel Elena took the initiative and asked Antonio to accompany her to Lila’s wedding—“not to leave me alone, and maybe always to dance with me.” Antonio interpreted the invitation as evidence of Elena’s serious interest in him; he went into debt to buy a new suit for the wedding—an expenditure he could ill afford.

In the film it is Antonio who takes the initiative and asks Elena if he can accompany her. Perhaps the screenwriters wanted to downplay the extent to which Elena was responsible for using Antonio. At the wedding she appeared oblivious to his feelings, humiliating him by ignoring him at the wedding reception, instead spending time with the young man she really loved—Nino Sarratore. Although Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet is generally thought to be about men’s mistreatment of women, the roles are sometimes reversed, with Elena callously using Antonio.

The wedding reception filled Elena with horror. She recalled when Maestra Oliviero asked her if she knew what “the plebs” were and she now understood what she hadn’t fully grasped years ago: “The plebs were us.” In the novel she elaborates: “The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer.” Elena had internalized much of Maestra Oliviero’s class prejudice and now saw her family and friends through Maestra Oliviero’s eyes.

The film leaves the viewer with unforgettable visual images of the wedding, but the novel presents both the drama of the wedding and Elena’s troubled, complicated reactions. I’m happy to have the experience of both film and novel versions of My Brilliant Friend.

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