Between HBO and Netflix, television viewers are getting an unprecedented opportunity to watch foreign language television, and some of it is great. We’re not talking cinema art snobbery here, no Ingmar Bergman self-indulgence– just great stories and riveting characters. HBO’s best offering right now is the eight-part series, My Brilliant Friend, based on the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante. The Neapolitan Novels tell the life story of two perceptive and intelligent girls born in Naples in 1944, who try to create lives for themselves within a violent and stultifying culture. Life is really tough in postwar Italy and things are so bleak for schoolgirls Lila and Lenu that even though they live in a suburb of Naples, they have never seen the sea. Both girls are brilliant at school and the first eight episodes take them from primary school through to high school, in a community where the Commorra run free and people are attacked in the streets by gangs. Against that backdrop Lila and Lenu study languages and the classics and as they grow they get entangled with some of the boys in the town. It sounds a bit pedestrian but it is great realistic storytelling, beautifully photographed. After a few minutes one gets used to the subtitles, which, by the way contain a lot of profanity.
For its part, Netflix has two worthwhile foreign language series well worth the time. Marseille, starring Gerard Depardieu, is the story of the rise and fall of an ethically-challenged mayor of the great French city and his constant struggles with gangsters, political bosses and corrupt officials. At home he has a headstrong daughter who wants to be a crusading journalist and a wife, a cellist, who is losing her ability to play the instrument due to some mystery disease. Located as it is on the Mediterranean, the Marseille portrayed is like the real Marseille—a gritty seaport filled with migrants from Africa and the Mideast some of whom are engaged in crime and terrorist activity.
Another great Netflix series is Babylon Berlin, a series set in the Berlin of the 1920’s where anything goes, especially if you are lucky enough to have money. The protagonists are a police detective from Cologne who has the worst drug habit possible, but is otherwise brilliant at his work, and a prostitute who dreams of someday being a detective. They team up and investigate a plan to rob a gold shipment. Against the detective work is an array or corrupt cops and civic officials as well as German and Russian gangsters. We get a glimpse of the raucous nightlife in the Berlin of Cabaret, as we drift through wild parties populated by all manner of persons and sexualities. Instead of captioning, Berlin and Marseilles are overdubbed in English, which can be a bit disconcerting, but the stories, characters and situations are so interesting that one soon overlooks this flaw.