Moments of beauty in life are worth recognizing. A tree, alive with color, is glimpsed at the other end of a dark tunnel. Pristine white dresses, made from rich fabrics, delicate lace, and buttons almost impossibly small, fill racks in a store, just waiting to be owned, worn, and endlessly admired. Light streams into a silent hallway. A smile springs from nowhere. A shoe fits perfectly.
Such moments can make the cruelties of life bearable, endurable—but they can also heighten the sting. Picture it: Out of a sky-blue car, shiny and graceful, and into the warm sunlight step two young men. The day is achingly lovely. They walk down a street. A young woman, tears stopped by dread, races ahead of them toward a room spilling over with joy. Every beam of sunlight makes it worse. This will be horrible, and the beauty of the day is an affront.
The beauty of Lila and Stefano’s wedding makes the inevitable arrival of the Solara brothers that much more dreadful. The same is true of the beauty of the shoes revealed on Marcello’s feet. And, in a very different sense, the loveliness of Saverio Costanzo’s direction makes all the vicious, cruel, heartbreaking moments in My Brilliant Friend—and in “La Promessa (The Promise)” in particular—harder to bear. That’s not a complain. That’s as it should be.
There’s a great deal to recommend My Brilliant Friend beyond the work of Constanzo (also one of the series’ writers) and series cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti. There’s the production design, set decoration, and costume design (Giancarlo Basili, Elio Maiello, and Antonella Cannarozzi, respectively). There’s the absolutely bewitching score, better than ever in this episode (by Max Richter, also the composer for The Leftovers). There’s the casting, frankly staggering, by Sara Casani and Laura Muccino, and of course, there is the cast. It wouldn’t work, none of it, without the cast, and they would have nothing to do without the words.
But Costanzo and Cianchetti’s work gives this adaptation of My Brilliant Friend much of its ache, because he captures it all, beautiful and heartbreaking elements alike, with such delicacy. Take the scene where Lenú (Margherita Mazzucco) picks out a wedding dress for Lila (Gaia Girace). She turns to the racks, and the dresses seem to glow slightly—not in a supernatural way, but the way someone with beautiful skin and a happy heart can seem to glow. It’s as though it comes from within. They are all beautiful, but when Lenú sees the perfect dress for Lila, you notice that it’s glowing differently. It looks to be a brighter white, a special white, and then you might notice that Lila’s face is half in shadow, and that Lenú’s clothes put her at odds with the soft beauty that surrounds her. That kind of thoughtfulness runs through nearly every frame of My Brilliant Friend, and one could be forgiven for being either entranced or driven away by it.
When it comes to one of the episode’s, and thus the season’s, most gripping scenes, both reactions are understandable, and the most common reaction might be to feel both at once. Lila locks herself in her room after learning that her father, brother, and husband-to-be have aligned with the Solaras. They all speak to her through the locked door, glimpsed only as colors and shapes through the frosted window. The themes of the episode are set up in the opening scene, as Lila, somewhat disappointed by the way her shoes look when brought to life off the page, is forced to talk Stefano down off a ledge of sorts, reminding him that compromises are necessary to achieving what you want. That idea floats back to the center of the story here and elsewhere. It’s shot accordingly. People seem connected until they are sharply divided—Lila stands up in the bath, Antonio peers over from his table, Nino turns away, Lila asks to mark an essay and Lenú accepts. To be reunited, they offer compromises or make overtures or promises. Sometimes they fail.
But sometimes they don’t. Constanzo shows us those moments, too. Until the episode’s closing moments, the wedding comes off nearly without a hitch, though in terms of successful connection, it doesn’t hold a candle to the one in which Lila calls Lenú, an intelligent woman who (at minimum) does not believe she shares Lila’s gifts, her “brilliant friend.” It’s not merely striking because it’s the title. It’s striking—perfect, really—because it is honest but also packed with meaning. Lila seems to be setting a new bargain, a new compromise: We can still love each other, provided you will keep your education (and your former teacher) from me. You are permitted to have things I will never have, provided you work hard enough for both of us.
It’s not an easy show, but it might be a brilliant (sorry) one. And until it returns, we’ll have to content ourselves with something lovely.