‘My Brilliant Friend’ Again Gives Voice to Life Within the Bonds of Patriarchy in ‘The Story of a New Name’

The strongest bonds have to endure some of life’s greatest challenges in “My Brilliant Friend: The Story of a New Name,” HBO’s continuing adaptation of the worldwide bestselling “Neapolitan series” by Elena Ferrante. The first season, which covered the first novel, was a stirring and powerful experience. We were introduced to two girls growing up in post-World War II Italy, where liberation from fascism did not mean freedom for women from stifling patriarchal norms. “The Story of a New Name” grows in maturity with its characters while exploring in even more striking ways how social conditioning shapes and clamps down lives. 

Now as young women Lila (Gaia Girace) and Elena (Margherita Mazzucco) must still maneuver the ways of life in 1960s Naples even as they yearn for more in life. Lila has married Stefano (Giovanni Amura), an ambitious but hot-tempered alpha of the Caracci clan who only thinks about his own wants. He sells a pair of handmade shoes from Lila’s family to the infamous Solara clan. This seals a disgust in Lila for Stefano and she can’t bring herself to make love with him on their wedding night. It’s the first many confrontations that bring out violence from Stefano, who rapes Lila and pressures her to have a baby. But she sees it almost as an unavoidable crucible in this man’s world to move out of the slums that have been her life. Elena is meanwhile betrothed to Antonio (Christian Giroso), a kinder working class man who nonetheless feels intimidated by Elena’s beauty and intelligence. She is in fact becoming more attracted to Nino (Francesco Serpico), a classmate with radical political fire who wants to be that most dangerous of species, a writer. But Nino’s own eye floats towards Lila, setting the stage for revelations and experiences that will further define the relationship between these two friends.

As with the first season this new chapter in the story of “My Brilliant Friend” has the bittersweet sensation of two people growing up together. What may seem like melodrama is a very striking take on a woman’s experiences not only in ‘50s Italy, but in any patriarchal society. Lila and Elena remain finely drawn individuals, two women with talent and capability walking around an enclosed world. The first few episodes find Lila in a dance between hell and hustle. Stefano has elevated her socially but at the cost of beatings and forced sex. Because he comes from a powerful clan even the parents just accept the obvious. But Lila is never portrayed as weak. She resists and also uses her newfound status to try and help Elena get Antonio out of military service, or shows off her new, fancy apartment and allows her friends to use it. This is a society where worth is defined by status and possessions, where a man is judged by what he can bring home. In one of Stefano’s most vulnerable scenes he takes Elena out for a drive to complain about Lila’s cold demeanor, insisting he does what he does for the good of their families. Elena also gets barked at by Antonio when he discovers she tried to get the Solaras to help him avoid military service, it’s enough for him to break off their relationship. The writing is almost anthropological, observing these moments with the somberness of acknowledging this is just how that generation functioned. 

Told firmly from a female gaze, “The Story of a New Name” never pretends that a glorious male savior will come to save Lila and Elena. Nino, who would be a romantic hero in cheesier fare, becomes more of a disaster for the friendship. Like many a coveted lover he’s an opportunist hiding behind romantic rhetoric and posturing. By the end of the season Elena realizes that if she wants to pursue an academic career she will be forced to prove herself by her own merit. So firm are the traditions of the time that even at university she’s deemed unfit to pursue being a professor because of something as trivial as an accent. For Lila the road is even harder because she has chosen to find financial stability by marrying a man who only thinks in material terms, and when the pressures to have a baby become inescapable her cage grows even tighter.

In another refreshing continuation of the first season, “My Brilliant Friend” is again executed with a lush visual style that evokes the period beautifully. Costumes, cinematography and music evoke the great Italian cinema of masters like Pasolini, Fellini and Antonioni. Directors Saverio Costanzo and Alice Rohrwacher film scenes that have the tone of memories, using sometimes just faces and looks to convey the gender hierarchy that exists in this version of Naples. Some great talents from contemporary Italian cinema are present including editor Francesca Calvelli, who brought such operatic fury to Marco Bellochio’s underrated Mussolini biopic “Vincere.” Meanwhile Max Richter delivers another lush score for an HBO production, every bit as elegant as his work on “The Leftovers.”

There are four novels in Ferrante’s Neapolitan saga and “The Story of a New Name” will surely satisfy readers hoping it will do the second volume justice. Gaia Girace and Margherita Mazzucco have also grown as actresses with these roles, conveying heartbreak, strength and discovery. What a worthy production this is, capturing in its frames the very rhythm of life and voices that seldom get heard, even though it is essential that they speak.

My Brilliant Friend: The Story of a New Name” premieres March 16 and airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.