Why HBO’s beautiful ‘My Brilliant Friend’ is in Italian, with subtitles

In the second episode of HBO’s new series “My Brilliant Friend,” two precocious young girls reverently recite passages from “Little Women,” garnering hope and strength and inspiration from Louisa May Alcott’s words. 

Author Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend” book series is regarded with similar reverence, around the world but especially in her home country, Italy, the setting of the coming-of-age epics about two girls growing up in post-World War II Naples. As with so many book-to-screen adaptations, from “Harry Potter” to “Gone Girl,” bringing Ferrante’s words to the screen required extreme care, so as to not upset the legions of fans for whom the books have meant so much. 

HBO’s version of “Friend” (Sunday and Monday, 9 EST/PST, ★★★½ out of four) keeps the story of little Elena (Elisa Del Genio as a young girl, and Margherita Mazzucco as a teenager) and her brilliant friend Raffaella (Ludovica Nasti and Gaia Girace, respectively) in the language it was written with English subtitles, in part for authenticity and in part because it’s an Italian co-production. Whatever the motives, it was the right decision for this beautiful, buoyant story of friendship, survival and growing up. “Friend” is, for lack of a better word, quite brilliant. 

The eight-episode series lives in the gray, dirty and beat-down neighborhood of Elena (nicknamed Lenu) and Raffaella (who’s always referred to as Lila), where crime bosses rule the streets and gossip spreads from one apartment window to the next. In this world of poverty and violence, Lenu and Lila are oddities that don’t fit in. Lenu is reserved and accommodating, and Lila is her outspoken and daring foil. Lenu is smart, but Lila is practically a prodigy. Both want to continue their studies in middle school, when most girls quit education after grade school to start work.  

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