Don’t let a fear of subtitles scare you away from this lushly filmed, passionately written series about Elena and Lila, two young women growing up in tumultuous Naples, Italy, during the 1960s.
Based on the best selling novels of Italian author Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend debuted its first season on HBO in 2018. This superb second outing, The Story of a New Name, pushes and distorts the established boundaries between the characters, the neighborhood they grow up in, and the visual experience of the audience.
A Smart and Surprisingly Modern Story
Season 1 established the intricate connection between Lila and Elena, best friends who compete against each other with ferocity and intensity. Shy and bookish Elena always feels a step behind the brilliant and ingenious Lila. This sense of inferiority carries into the second season.
Both girls have intelligence and ambition: their greatest desire is to escape their poor neighborhood, which is rife with violence, from domestic beatings to gang activities. However, their paths diverge after elementary school when Elena’s parents allow her to continue her education, and Lila’s do not.
Season 2 details Lila’s disillusionment and anger after her marriage at 16. The show deals with domestic violence in a complex way, attempting to depict both the abuser and the victim with sensitivity. Meanwhile, Elena goes to high school then college, dealing with more generic teenage problems, like grades and unrequited love.
Both characters feel very contemporary given the 1960s setting, as each strives for a life different from the servile one expected of her, facing limitations along the way. There is a ton of story packed into these eight, hour-long episodes, but they never feel too crammed or stuffed with any extraneous plot.
There are two performances crucial to the success of this show. Margherita Mazzucco, as Elena, and Gaia Girace, as Lila, both capture the complicated thoughts and behaviors of their characters. Lila is the flashier of the two, but Girace grounds her with snarky humor and emotional complexity.
Thanks to Girace’s skillful portrayal, even at Lila’s worst, when she cruelly taunts Elena after a party with her high school classmates, we know she is acting out because she feels insecure, envious, unhappy, and furious. Girace lets us understand how trapped and stifled Lila feels.
Quiet and observant, Elena struggles with self-confidence. Her conviction that Lila will pull them out of the neighborhood changes after a fateful vacation on the island of Ischia. Mazzucco delivers a subtle yet powerful performance over these two episodes. She patiently builds up to the moment Elena musters up the courage to go all-in on her own life.
Then, she allows us to watch the strength and determination of Elena’s resolution as she sails away from Ischia in a masterful wordless scene. Throughout the course of the series, she adeptly portrays Elena’s growth amid the vast political and cultural changes occurring in Italy at the time.
Show creator and director Saverio Costanzo takes more chances with his filmmaking than in Season 1. He vacillates between unforgiving brutality and stunning beauty. Lila’s wedding night is a horrific portrayal of domestic violence captured unflinchingly. Meanwhile, the trip to Ischia is a daze of fizzy light, color, and sound filmed like a fairy tale.
As with the first season, The Story of a New Name features a voice-over that explains the characters’ thoughts to us. While convenient to have everything explained so frankly, the voice-over takes away a bit of the show’s subtlety and subtext. The performances are so compelling that we don’t necessarily need so much exposition from a narrator.
The TV show follows the plot of the books very closely, although the timeline in the show is much more linear, especially in the second half. Whereas the first season balanced focus between the girls and the conflict in the neighborhood, the second season concentrates more pointedly on the lives of Lila and Elena.
Since they are the backbones of the story, the decision to zero in on them pays off. We still get a sense of the outside influences and the enormous cultural shift happening in Italy, but it plays out through their lives, which makes it more impactful.
- Gorgeously shot
- Bold filmmaking
- Exceptional acting from the two leads
- Well-paced plot
What Doesn’t Work
- Difficult to track the timeline and character ages, especially in the second half of the season
- A voice-over that eliminates subtlety
The Story of a New Name is an epic coming-of-age tale worth a watch. With stunning Italian scenery and filmed in Italian, the English subtitles only enhance the authenticity of the performances, writing, and filmmaking.