My Brilliant Friend is an Italian produced HBO series. The story centers on the friendship between two girls. Through 8 episodes in season 1, we follow them from their childhood in the 1950s into adulthood.

My Brilliant Friend is a drama show on HBO with two female characters at the center of the story. The story may take place in Italy (Naples, to be exact), but it’s also very universal.

The lives of the two girls, Elena Greco and Raffaella Cerullo (always referred to as Lila), are constantly impacted by society’s expectations of girls in 1950s Italy. That along with family and money determine more about their lives than what they want. 

Elena is the narrator of My Brilliant Friend (org. title L’amica geniale) and as such the story is by Elena Greco. But it’s just as much about her brilliant friend, Lila, who is actually the title character. 

Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo is both breathtaking and infuriating. You won’t be able to get enough of Elena and Lila. I certainly couldn’t!

Nature versus nurture

Both Elena and Lila come from working class families in a town on the outskirts of Naples. Their entire lives revolve around what happens in their neighborhood. Of course, this is often the case for kids, but even more so in the age before internet and various means of transportation.

Lila comes from a family poorer than Elena’s. However, Lila has a mind that makes her the smartest in the entire town – by far. She’s taught herself to read, which is how we’re first introduced to her. Elena has been the prize-student in school and works hard to be the best.

Lila doesn’t have to try too much. She simply is. However, her wits also create a distance to most other people. She doesn’t think very highly of them. Elena is the exception since she actually understands what Lila says and what she really means.

Both girls are inherently smarter than anyone else around them and always picks up on what’s going on. In My Brilliant Friend, we see them observing their family and friends with a sort of disbelief when things happen; Only Lila and Elena seem to be able to cut through all the bullsh*t. 

It’s a gift really, but not for two kids. And especially not for two young girls, who are only expected to grow up and get married. Nobody expects them to actually do anything with their lives as individuals. With very few exceptions, which come from their father and brother respectively.

Both recognize that these girls could have very different (and much better) lives than what their upbringing would usually allow for.

That beautiful mind

As soon as the teacher in Elena and Lila’s class discover the brilliant mind of Lila, she does her best to teach her more and push her further. Lila enjoys this and wants to continue studying. She simply has the kind of drive that creates entrepreneurs.

Elena, on the other hand, quickly tires when learning new things without Lila. If Lila isn’t there to push her and study with her, she turns to daydreaming instead.

This becomes a real issue when only Elena can convince her family to allow her to continue studying Latin rather than start working. The girls are not even teenagers yet, but the 1950s were a different time. Especially in poor areas.

The interesting evolution in Elena happens when she discovers that Lila is already much better at Latin. And she’s not even in school. Instead, she’s working with her father and brother, but a newly opened library means she can read all the books she wants.

Lila might sound like a nerdy little bookworm, and she is, but nobody knows about this. Instead, she’s known as the tiny, dark-eyed and black-haired girl, who never backs down.

Not from anyone or anything. She doesn’t just think she’s better than everyone else, she knows she is.

What both girls have in common is that they only know what they read. As the audience watching My Brilliant Friend, we’re constantly confronted with the fact that they’re unaware of very basic things. Everything from politics to the fact that girls start bleeding once a month when they hit puberty.

My Brilliant Friend review HBO

The casting of Elena and Lila

In episode 1 of My Brilliant Friend, we only see Elena and Lila as young kids. First when they meet and then as they attempt to continue studying in episode 2.

In both episodes, the girls are portrayed brilliantly by child actors. Elisa del Genio is the smart and kind Elena while Ludovica Nasti is the brilliant and rebellious Lila. When watching Elisa del Genio and Ludovica Nasti portray the friendship between Elena and Lila, you don’t ever want the scenes to end.

It’s like something out of a Spielberg movie where child actors are better than you ever dared hope. Both Elisa del Genio (Elena) and Ludovica Nasti (Lila) have their screen acting debuts in My Brilliant Friend.

Elena and Lila as teenagers

In episode 3, we make the transition from children to teenagers. The teenage version of Elena is portrayed by Margherita Mazzucco, while teenage Lila is portrayed by Gaia Girace. Once again, these actors are perfect casting choices as Elena and Lila respectively. And watching the friendship evolve as they endure more serious conflicts is still captivating.

We get to watch Margherita Mazzucco (Elena) and Gaia Girace (Lila) almost equally in terms of screen time in episode 4 and episode 5. When we get to episode 6, Elena has much more screentime since she’s away from their childhood home. Still, we do return to some very intense scenes with Lila.

As sweet and almost naive as Margherita Mazzucco manages to show Elena, we get an equally fierce Lila through Gaia Girace. The older she gets, the more impossible people around her think she is. There’s a fire in her eyes that people are both drawn to and fear, while others simply feel the need to tame her. 

According to IMDb, both Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace have their screen acting debuts in My Brilliant Friend. Just as it was the case with the two child actors portraying the younger versions of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo.

We also see the adult Elena Greco at the beginning of episode 1. This is when she begins writing the story of Lila and their friendship. She’s portrayed by Elisabetta De Palo, who’s also in the Italian Netflix series Suburra.

My Brilliant Friend renewed for Season 2

When you fall in love with this amazing show, you’ll be pleased to know that My Brilliant Friend has already been renewed for season 2.

The second season has been greenlit by HBO and RAI (Italian TV channel) and will be based on the second book in the author, Elena Ferrante’s 4-part book series. The second book is titled The Story of a New Name and will be the basis of season 2 as well.

All 8 episodes in season 1 of My Brilliant Friend were directed by Saverio Constanzo. He’s already an award-winning director, but I have no doubt this series will result in even more awards for him. Saverio Constanzo also has writing credit for season 1 along with the Laura Paolucci, Francesco Piccolo, and Elena Ferrante (author of the book).

The absolutely stunning music in the series is by Max Richter. He’s also worked on music for shows like Taboo and The Leftovers as well as movies such as Miss Sloane and Mary Queen of Scots

Womentainment recommendation: Watch My Brilliant Friend at least once!

There’s so much to take in when watching season 1 of My Brilliant Friend that I feel I need to watch it again. I’m sure I must have missed at least some elements. But please, don’t worry about having to read subtitles to understand this.

Just don’t try to multitask while watching this series – you never should, while watching anything really – so put that phone away and get more out of the story.

Besides, so very much is said without words. And when dialogue is spoken, it tends to have lots of hidden meaning. I don’t speak a work of Italian myself (other than certain food items) and I managed just fine.

Director: Saverio Costanzo
Writers: Saverio Costanzo, Elena Ferrante, Laura Paolucci, Francesco Piccolo
Cast: Valentina Acca, Antonio Buonanno, Gennaro Canonico

Official plot:

When the most important friend in her life seems to disappear without trace, Elena Greco, an elderly woman living in a house crammed with books, switches on her PC and starts writing her own story, and that of Lila. She tells the tale of their friendship, which started at school in the 1950s. Set in a dangerous but fascinating Naples, it is just the start of a story spanning sixty years of life. A tale that attempts to unveil the mystery of Lila, Elena’s brilliant friend. Her best friend, and her worst enemy.