On a Change of Location in Season 2 of My Brilliant Friend

by Stiliana Milkova

In the second season of HBO/RAI’s TV series My Brilliant Friend, Elena Greco meets Pietro Airota, a student at the prestigious university Elena is attending on a scholarship. Soon Pietro is besotted with her and after a lively lunch at which he introduces her to his parents and sister, he tells her to come visit him in Turin where his family lives. Pietro’s father, Professor Airota, is an esteemed and influential scholar; his mother, a sophisticated intellectual; and his sister, a professor of art history in Milan. Pietro’s elite Turinese family aids Elena’s social and professional ascent. At the end of the second season her first book gets published because of Adele’s connections.

Figure 1. HBO advertisement

It makes perfect sense that the cultured Airota family should live in Turin. In the nineteenth century, Turin was unified Italy’s first capital, the home of the royal Savoy dynasty, and the crucible of political, scientific, cultural, and industrial power. And it is still considered a literary-cultural capital, the home of a major newspaper, important publishing houses, world-class museums, and a famous book fair. The poets and writers associated with Turin include Guido Gozzano, Cesare Pavese, Primo Levi, Lalla Romano, Italo Calvino, Natalia Ginzburg, Paolo Giordano, and Alessandro Baricco.

The TV series My Brilliant Friend, directed by Saverio Costanzo, is an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s four bestselling Neapolitan novels, translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein. In the first two seasons the script follows closely the text of Ferrante’s first two novels, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of the New Name. But there is one striking discrepancy which emerges in the second season with the introduction of Pietro’s character. In the literary text, the Airota family hails from Genoa and not from Turin. This significant shift in location is bewildering, for the novels revisit Genoa several times as the home of the Airota family. 

The change in setting from Genoa to Turin might be inconspicuous compared to the series’ overall faithful adaptation of Ferrante’s literary text. Costanzo, after all, is deploying his own stylistic tools to recreate the novels on screen and the series is interspersed with his intertextual nods or authorial gestures (Tabanelli 2019). But the idea that Elena’s future husband’s family is from Turin clashes with the key premise with the narrative foundation, in fact of the novels, and proposes a startling revision of Ferrante’s use of location.

Figure 2. Piazza San Carlo, Turin

In the prologue which opens My Brilliant Friend Elena Greco is an established writer living in Turin (Fig. 2). One day she finds out that her childhood friend Lila has disappeared without a trace and sets out to write the story of their friendship. Costanzo’s adaptation uses voiceover to convey Elena’s first-person narration. He also adds a scene in which Lila appears as a ghost from the past to spur Elena’s writing. Although not in Ferrante’s original, this scene effectively conveys Lila’s haunting presence in Elena’s life despite her disappearance. Turin then is the location the place from where Elena is writing and narrating.

Elena, who has grown up in a poor and violent Neapolitan neighborhood, works hard all her life to assert herself as a woman writer, to prove that she is equal to, if not better than, the arrogant and misogynist male intellectual elite. Even if the Airotas’ connections jumpstart her career as a writer, her industriousness and perseverance sustain her success. When she is in her early 50s Elena moves to Turin to take a coveted job as the head of a small publishing house, therefore finally occupying the center of literary-cultural production. “I felt much more respected,” reflects Elena, “I would say in fact more powerful, than Adele had been in my eyes decades earlier” (The Story of the Lost Child, 452). Turin then stands for Elena’s professional success and for her definitive emancipation from an oppressive patriarchal culture.

The Neapolitan novels close with an epilogue set in Turin as well, bringing the reader back to their point of origin, closing the circle of Elena’s narration. We can say then that Turin serves as the narrative frame of Ferrante’s four volumes, that the story is enclosed within its spatial and symbolic coordinates. And lest readers overlook the city, Ferrante specifies the location of Elena’s Turin apartment near the Princess Isabella bridge and the Valentino park (Fig. 3 and Fig. 4).

Figure 3. Princess Isabella Bridge, Turin