In venturing out of the Luzzatti quarter of Naples where most of the first season of “My Brilliant Friend” is set, the second season, subtitled “The Story of a New Name,” breaks new ground in several ways that are key to understanding the show’s overall vision and ambitious aesthetic scope.
The eight new episodes based on Elena Ferrante’s bestselling “Neapolitan Novels” debut March 16 in the U.S. and sees the tale evolve on many levels as the friendship between Lila (Gaia Girace) and Elena (Margherita Mazzucco) is tested by new twists. The former is now unhappily married while the latter is a model student who moves to Pisa. And then there is a crucial holiday on the island of Ischia where they meet up with old childhood friend Nino Sarratore (Francesco Serpico).
“When I read the books I had the impression that the characters moved in different ways within the progression of the story,” says “My Brilliant Friend” director and showrunner Saverio Costanzo. “Behind the narrative I could see history with a capital ‘h’ was evolving and maturing. When I thought about how to bring all of this to the screen it was an inescapable fact that the 1950s are the years of neo-realism,” as reflected in first season’s tone.
But then, as the story was entering the 1960s, “just like the French directors of those days — Godard, Rohmer, Truffaut,” Costanzo says he felt the need, “to break with tradition, along with my characters.” This meant gradually weaving in “a change of form and pace.” For this, he took cues from France’s Nouvelle Vague.
This tonal transition initially stems from the vision of a different director, Alice Rohrwacher, the Italian auteur known for Cannes prizewinners “The Wonders” and “Happy as Lazzaro.” Rohrwacher, who worked with her customary cinematographer Helene Louvart on “My Brilliant Friend,” directed Episodes 4 and 5 when the narrative moves from Naples to Ischia.
“Saverio sensed that there was a major shift at this point of Ferrante’s story,” says Rohrwacher. “And he asked me to direct the two Ischia episodes that really represent this rupture.”
Rohrwacher adds that the Ferrante show marks the first time she was working with characters “not born from my imagination,” which resulted in actors Mazzucco and Girace knowing the protagonists “better than myself.”
She also points out her concern over “maintaining continuity” which was her “biggest challenge” in order to avoid throwing the audience off kilter. But when asked whether Rohrwacher feels she also brought a female gaze to the show, she briefly bristles.
“Let’s say that the female gaze certainly exists,” she replies. “And Saverio is an example of female gaze. It’s not a given that the female gaze belongs only to women.”
Costanzo, who created the show after being chosen for the task by Ferrante — who has input on the screenplay — calls Rohrwacher’s episodes “more anarchic, more free” and notes that by Episodes 6 and 7, when he fully took back the reins, the audience “accepted the total change” that goes from a grey neorelist palette to an explosion of color and movement.
Italian audiences have fully embraced the second season. The high-end skein which is a RAI and HBO original produced by Lorenzo Mieli and Mario Gianani for Fremantle’s The Apartment and Wildside and by Domenico Procacci for Fandango scored a stellar rougly 30% average primetime share in February on RAI’s flagship RAI 1 station.
As for the third season of “My Brilliant Friend,” which is in the works and set in the 1970s, its cinematic references and tone will be shifting into New Hollywood territory, says Costanzo, citing “Scorsese, De Palma, Coppola, Bogdanovich” as influences.
“My Brilliant Friend” Season 2 premieres March 16 on HBO.