20 June 2022

A new decade, a new season for this exquisite Italian drama

Whether you’ve watched the previous two seasons of My Brilliant Friend and have been waiting patiently for the third, or if you’re about to embark on a binge of note, you are in for a treat. All 24 episodes of all three seasons are available to stream now on Showmax

For the sake of newcomers – which I was, too, until recently – a brief recap: in the first season, set in the 1950s, we meet Lila and Lenu, two little girls of remarkable intelligence who live in a rough neighbourhood in Naples. While beautifully filmed throughout, from the dusty streets to the idyllic island summers, and eventually to cities like Florence and Milan, the lives portrayed are not beautiful at all. Not by our standards of today.

The violence is casual and commonplace – expected, even. Men routinely slap their wives to keep them in their place, and their word is law in the home. They also kick the cr*p out of each other in the streets, over slights petty or imagined. The people are mostly poor, while the local mobsters and loan sharks are the only ones with money, earned at the expense of the rest.

The girls’ teacher sees Lenu’s potential and encourages her to continue with her schooling, which her parents resist at first. What use is an education to a girl, after all? Her time is better spent cooking, cleaning, or working in a shop. Lenu manages to stay in school but Lila doesn’t have the same support.

Although she drops out she still makes a point of staying one step ahead of Lenu, with book learning as well as with boys. She grows from a feisty girl into a provocative and precocious teen while Lenu is quiet and reserved, and not unaffected by her best friend’s competitive nature. The friends are played from here on by Gaia Girace (Lila) and Margherita Mazzucco (Lenu).

In this world, marriage happens young; after spurning the affections of most of the boys in the neighbourhood, Lila chooses her husband while still a teenager. For a full recap, with spoilers, click here.

Season 2 picks up immediately where Season 1 ends, and takes us from the 50s into the 1960s. Lila’s marriage, although “normal”, does not please her. Some women might lie back and suffer in silence but Lila is not one of them.

Lenu, in the meantime, continues with her education. An important character in this season is Nino (Francesco Serpico), also a scholar and an academic. Both young women love him, and this will remain part of their story through to Season 3 (and likely beyond; the fourth book in Elena Ferrante’s series has been greenlit for the small screen. We are promised the story of a 60-year friendship and we’re only halfway there).

With engagement rings being handed out as unceremoniously as a backhand to the cheek, Lenu – now at university in Pisa – accepts the proposal of fellow student Pietro Airota (Matteo Cecchi). It’s to be a long engagement, and in the meantime, Lenu writes a book, which has some “racy” pages. She’s praised in her intellectual circles but back home in the neighbourhood, they’re only interested in the lewd bits. To Lenu’s disappointment, Lila’s curiosity is entirely absent. She appears indifferent to this success, with which she cannot compete. 

“In the second season … the girls — now young women — discover that in order to wiggle out of the narrow constraints of poor women’s lives in postwar Italy, they’re going to have to get creative,” says Rolling Stone, in a recap. “Decades later, it’s a message that resonates with any woman who has a pulse and a WiFi connection. Where does women’s anger come from? And where does it go? My Brilliant Friend shows us, step by step.” 

This is explored more fully in Season 3, in the 70s, with the advent of the women’s liberation movement (alongside other political issues of the time). As a wife, we also see Lenu raising her voice, literally and figuratively. She is no longer the quiet mouse she was 10 years earlier. Mashable’s review is headlined “The sweet catharsis of watching Elena come into her own on My Brilliant Friend”.

And this is why, despite being set in another world and another time, My Brilliant Friend resonates universally. It also calls into question the nature of friendships, and the relationships we, as women, build with other women. At what point do they reveal themselves to be toxic? When do they no longer serve us?

There are many occasions when we might think Lenu has had enough of Lila, who seems rude, demanding and arrogant (but really, just Italian) but yet, despite long gaps of time, not seeing or speaking to each other, she is always there for her. When Pietro points out the toxicity, Lenu defends Lila and turns her back on her husband, warning him to never speak of her that way again.

Season 3’s title is Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Lila leaves the neighbourhood for a while, but she cannot resist the pull to return, even though her father calls her a whore to her young son’s face. She goes from the well-off grocer’s wife to a worker in a sausage factory. Lenu leaves, to a certain extent, but her heart remains with someone who also grew up there, and whom she’s known since childhood. Does anyone ever truly leave their past behind?

The Guardian says: “An impeccably stylish adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novels is seductive, cinematic and weaves a spell unlike anything else.”

Writer Rebecca Nicholson concludes in her review, “This is television at its best and it weaves a spell unlike anything I have seen in a very long time. It demands concentration but rewards it generously. For those who have yet to experience the pleasure of My Brilliant Friend, I would suggest not jumping in here, as both personal and political histories weigh heavily on the characters and their relationships. Go back to the beginning, and take it all in.”

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