My Brilliant Friend, the acclaimed Elena Ferrante novel and recently released HBO show, centers around Elena “Lenu” Greco and Raffaela “Lila” Cerullo, two best friends growing up in Naples, and the people in their neighborhood. The adaptation is not quite as good as the books, because the interior lives of memorable literary characters are never so easily reproduced for the camera. But the show is charming, and enjoyable, because it effectively mimics dusty mid-century Naples; because it faithfully recreates the plot and characters of Ferrante’s first novel; because that plot and those characters are so compelling that to watch the action play out on screen is nearly as good as watching it play out on the page, even if you miss Elena’s monologues.
The eight episode miniseries isn’t yet finished, so I’ll reserve judgment for the finished product. I do want to talk about one element, though: The teenaged Michele Solara, as portrayed by Alessio Gallo.
Who is Michele Solara? Michele and his brother Marcello are the preening, rich bullies of the lot, heirs to a shady black market established by their parents. The Solaras are well-dressed, well-funded, and total jerks: They spend most of Ferrante’s novels as recurring boogymen, using their money to rule the neighborhood, yoking women into their orbit, and manifesting the pro-capitalist fascist ideology that haunts Italy throughout the twentieth century.
Marcello is the pretty one. He looks like this.
Michele, again, looks like this.
What a face! So far, there’s been almost nothing revealed about it. Marcello, his brother, has some interiority: He’s a jerk, but when Lila holds a knife to his neck after he makes a crude pass at Elena, he becomes romantically obsessed with her, and almost sensitive in a way that makes you feel sorry for him. (But not too sorry: Lila makes it clear why she’s disgusted by him, and the show mostly concurs with her.)
Michele, on the other hand, has barely factored into the plot besides acting as his brother’s muscle, and looking like teenaged Dracula. It’s such a fascinating look, like a 40-60 ratio of “handsome?” to “scary.”
Two friends, apropos of nothing, have texted me while watching to point him out. I hadn’t even mentioned it to them.
Michele’s perpetually brooding expression reflects his reputation as a silent enforcer, someone who does the dirty work without complaint. There’s one scene in the fifth episode where he and Marcello come to the rescue of Elena and Lila’s male friends when they’re getting their ass kicked by a group of rich kids from outside the neighborhood (aka the real enemy). Michele asks to see the injuries sustained by Pasquale, one of the friends, and is rudely rejected. He doesn’t get angry, though; his face doesn’t move at all. He’s just like, “alright, be hurt, whatever, I don’t care.” He doesn’t even get thanked for his effort. In another scene, his brother whines to him about getting Pasquale kicked out of a party, and he wordlessly complies.
Casting an adaptation of a novel is difficult. In a series like Ferrante’s, where you spend literally decades with the characters from childhood to adulthood to old age, you come up with faces for everyone. The actors need to not only satisfy the mental image created by the reader, but they need to satisfy the demands of the text. (Ferrante has played a part in creating the show; I’m sure she was very specific about that.) Some of the casting is very good: Lila and Elena look and act perfectly, in my opinion. Some of the casting is so-so: The lanky, floppy-haired Antonio is fairly forgettable, a no-no considering he becomes such a pivotal character.
Michele, though? What an odious piece of shit. He looks like he was styled by an evil mortician.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, these pictures say “I don’t want to fuck with that guy” 125 times.
The actor, Alessio Gallo, is not this terrifying in real life. He’s handsome! He can even smile.
That’s just what good lighting, styling, and writing will do for you. This is just “acting,” obviously, but for me it’s one of the most memorable elements of the show thus far.
My Brilliant Friend is a good show, and you should watch it if only to get some more of this guy’s brilliant face.
Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly asserted that the murdered Don Achille was the father of the Solaras.