My Brilliant Friend (L’Amica Geniale)

This Italian production, currently being broadcast on HBO, tells the story of two girls growing up in working class Naples just after World War II.  The economy is a mess, and ordinary life is filled with arbitrary violence.  Men beaten down by their jobs come home and beat their wives and children.  On the streets, both men and women often settle their differences with their fists, or by throwing household objects (or, in one case, a child) out the window.  The only way out of such a world is through education, but even that isn’t available to everyone.  The schools are free, but not every parent is comfortable giving up the income that even a 12-year old can earn.  And not every parent wants their children to be more educated than they are.

This is one of those literary adaptations that actually works better on screen.  You see the world literally through the eyes of the children, who understand very early how to ignore or avoid violent situations without understanding until much later where the violence is coming from.  And you’re spared the annoying author voiceovers.

The cast is very good.  In Episode 3, the director provides a nice cinematic depiction of the changeover from child to teenage actors, showing the child actor first and then the teenager in the same spot.  The casting is so good – the teenage actors look like plausible grown-up versions of the children – that you could probably have figured it out even without the cinema trick.  But it’s helpful, because keeping track of all the characters, and who is related to who,  is one of the difficulties of following this program.   The good news is that the books track the same group of characters throughout their lives, so once you’ve figured them out you won’t be facing new characters every episode (or every season).

The show is subtitled in both Italian and Neapolitan (a local dialect not immediately understandable to those from other parts of Italy), although it may not be clear to American audiences which is which.  The change in speech patterns –  the kids who get more education gradually spend more time speaking standard Italian, while their parents communicate only in dialect – is a recurring theme in this story.

Recommended, but because of the subtitles and the relatively large number of characters, it’s not something you can watch with half an eye while you’re doing something else.

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