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‘My Brilliant Friend’ Review: ‘Ghosts’ Takes an Eerie Trip Inside Lila’s Head

With one episode to go, Saverio Costanzo's penultimate entry cements why this is one of the best shows of the year.

My Brilliant Friend

“My Brilliant Friend”

HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “My Brilliant Friend” Season 2, Episode 7, “Ghosts.”]

“Ghosts” ends with a haunted Lenu (Margherita Mazzucco) recalling how her whole life is a series of “almosts” as she tosses a box containing Lila’s (Gaia Girace) innermost personal effects and writings over a bridge. The “ghosts” of this episode stalk every frame, and they’re the ghosts of dreams killed, hopes collapsed, and old friends and lovers who’ve drifted apart. As Lenu betrays her promise to Lila never to read the letters entrusted to her, director and series creator Saverio Costanzo makes an experimental choice, which is to shoot Lila’s epistolary reverie in 16mm. The rest of the series has, up to this point, been shot digitally, despite lacking the varnish of other contemporary series in favor of a loose, gritty, ’60s arthouse style.

The camerawork helps create a claustrophobic, gossamer atmosphere for the most intimate hour of “My Brilliant Friend” so far. Not until now have we been so far plunged into Lila’s headspace; for the most part we’ve seen Lila through the eyes of Lenu. That’s somewhat the case this week, too, as the episode plays out as an extended flashback that Lenu is reading while sick in bed. With Alba Rohrwacher’s grown-up version of Lenu supplying voiceover, we also get Lenu’s particular filter over things. In this episode, her resentment culminates in the aforementioned terrible act of dumping the contents of Lila’s mind into a river.

This can be a jarring hour, especially since it’s clear from the first scene we’ve jumped ahead in time, with Lenu now deep into her studies in Pisa, deliriously happy in a new romantic relationship. That man goes away too, though, sending Lenu back to turning over that old stone in her head about her brilliant friend. But the time leaps and flips in film stock make “Ghosts” feel all the more bracing and new, and like nothing else on TV. Besides, from the very first scene all the way back in Season 1, “My Brilliant Friend,” has never moved in a straight line.

It’s fitting that Lila is seen reading a copy of “Ulysses” in this episode, as James Joyce’s 1918 modernist tome deployed every stylistic trick in the book, from the epistolary to a play format, to even a kind of question-and-answer session. “Ghosts” feels equally experimental, like it’s trying something new and discovering the medium for the first time. It’s devastating when Lila, now with a baby boy she’s named after her brother Rino (Gennaro De Stefano), despite the hysterical reaction of her husband, is approached by her old teacher, whom she excitedly tells about “Ulysses” (obviously a Lenu recommendation) only to be told not to read books she doesn’t understand. “It’s bad for you,” Lila’s crotchety former teacher tells her, before insisting that Lila is not like everybody else. “I’m like everyone else,” Lila says, before slowly melting into tears.

My Brilliant Friend

“My Brilliant Friend”

Eduardo Castaldo/HBO

Stefano is utterly terrifying this week, with Giovanni Amura delivering another maniacal performance as an abusive husband who is, in his own way, also doing a performance. Stefano is performing the front of conventional masculinity, the front of a marriage, of loving Lila, of running his business so as not to let his family, the Solaras, the whole town down. That facade crumbles like a slow-motion demolition in “Ghosts,” as Lila continues to drive in the knife that Rino isn’t his child, and Stefano has to confess to his affair with Ada Cappuccio, the grocery store worker and Lila’s onetime friend.

Like the most painful moments of “My Brilliant Friend,” this all plays out like a horror movie, with Stefano lurking behind peepholes and twisting from despair to rage in the shadows of his and Lila’s flat. A scene where Stefano tries to raise his fists to his own nephew, barely older than an infant, is truly horrific, and whatever Costanzo and his crew did to direct the child actors into screaming and sobbing like that, I don’t want to know. Well done.

After this week, there’s only one more episode in this season of “My Brilliant Friend,” and I have to say it fills me with sadness to have to say that. Though no followup season has been confirmed, it’s only a matter of time (a tricky thing right now), and at least we still have two more rich novels from Elena Ferrante to fill out two more seasons. Yet it still feels like not enough, in the best way.

Grade: A

“My Brilliant Friend” airs new episodes Mondays at 10 p.m. ET. on HBO.

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