The third season of HBO’s “My Brilliant Friend” is, so far, a treat. The friendship between Elena and Lila continues to grate on both of them, and they drift a bit — and yet the early Naples bond is so compelling that there’s always a thread of contact and loyalty between them. Elena is willing to help Lila, who is at odds with her family and falling apart, but Lila’s abrasiveness and her inability to soften her tough-minded insights, her jealousy, and her contempt makes it hard.
Their friendship is now set against the backdrop of an Italy in the midst of political division and cultural liberation. Lila and Elena live in a stubbornly patriarchal country, and they persist in trying to exercise independence and power despite strong resistance from their families. Elena has written a successful novel (even while those in her old neighborhood consider it smut), but her husband pressures her to focus more on motherhood than writing. At one point, she goes to get birth control, and the doctor says to her, “There’s no better medicine for a woman than pregnancy.”
I’ve liked Margherita Mazzucco as Elena all along. She has played the lead as interior and shy — but with intelligent, watchful eyes unable to hide her true feelings. She keeps moving further away from her origins — her poor neighborhood and her brusque mother — but they stay with her, within her. This season, though, Mazzucco shines even more as Elena becomes more expressive and formed, and as her intellectual life doesn’t become the panacea she’d hoped for.
By the way, the series has been renewed for a fourth and final season, so that all four of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels will have ultimately been adapted. That’s great news for fans, a (sadly) smallish group in this country. “My Brilliant Friend” continues to transport with its gorgeous cinematography and set design, and to challenge with its realism and honesty.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.