This piece discusses some of the plot details of “My Brilliant Friend,” but man oh man is the mood more the point than the plot here.
In the bravura wedding scene that opens director Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” brother of the bride Sonny Corleone, played by James Caan, pinches the cheek of bridesmaid Lucy Mancini (Jeannie Linero) and later slips off with her for a clandestine liaison. From these few brief scenes, you’d never know that Lucy is a fully developed character in Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name: She helps set up the Corleone family operations in Las Vegas, and the book explores her grief after Sonny’s assassination and her journey back to romantic and sexual happiness.
I think about Lucy Mancini a lot, not so much because her story is a major loss to movie history, but because she represents the women in the margins who bear the consequences of the main character’s decisions. And she was never on my mind so frequently as when I watched HBO’s adaptation of “My Brilliant Friend,” the first novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, which debuts on Nov. 18. It would be a disservice to “My Brilliant Friend” to treat it as a mere addendum to “The Godfather.” But watching the movie series and the miniseries together is a powerful testament to what we gain when we see the world both from the center and the margins.
“My Brilliant Friend” follows Elena Greco (Elisa del Genio as a child, Margherita Mazzucco as a teenager) and Raffaella Cerullo (Ludovica Nasti and later Gaia Girace) through their youths in a tenement neighborhood in postwar Naples. Their district is dominated by a loan shark (Antonio Pennarella) and the Solara family, who profited from the black market during World War II. Elena, known as Lenù, and Raffaella, who goes by Lila, are outstanding students — Lila through native genius and Lenù through hard work — and the series explores the ways in which their intelligence might allow them to escape the Neapolitan cycle of poverty, even as their gifts separate them from their peers and from each other.
Lives like Lenù’s and Lila’s are incidental in the cinematic world of “The Godfather.” “My Brilliant Friend” shows us the richness and tragedy that lie beyond that male-defined frame.
In “The Godfather,” domestic violence is an ugly cog in some larger plot mechanics. Knowing that Sonny’s sister, Connie (Talia Shire), is regularly abused by her husband, Carlo (Gianni Russo), the family’s enemies instigate a brawl between them as part of a plot to lure Sonny out of the family compound and murder him.
Where Carlo is an up-jumped schemer and a tool in larger plots, “My Brilliant Friend” paints a deeper and more disturbing portrait of intimate violence. Lenù’s mother, Immacolata (Annarita Vitolo), furious that her daughter might escape the drudgery of housework and child care that has defined her own life, goads Lenù’s father, Vittorio (Luca Gallone), by saying he isn’t enough of a man to hit his daughter properly. Even as Vittorio beats Lenù, he insists to Immacolata that the girl will go to school. He’s strong enough to insist that his daughter be given a chance at a better life, but too weak to refuse to beat that same child. Lila’s father (Antonio Buonanno) is even weaker: He throws Lila out a window when she demands to go to middle school, then blames the child he’s left bleeding in the street for provoking him.
Love, sex and romance also carry different risks for the men of “The Godfather” and the women of “My Brilliant Friend.” In “The Godfather,” affection for women risks making men weak. Sonny is undone by his affection for his sister and his need to defend her. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) must put aside his feelings for Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) to avenge his father.
But in “My Brilliant Friend,” catching the eye of one of the Solara brothers is a deadly dangerous business for the girl involved. Marcello (Elvis Esposito) and Michele (Alessio Gallo) prowl the streets of Naples, pulling girls into their sleek car and assaulting and humiliating them. Their behavior is exactly the sort of transgression that a meek Italian immigrant describes in the iconic opening scene of “The Godfather,” when he begs Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) to avenge his daughter. The young woman had been beaten and disfigured by her boyfriend, who is “not an Italian,” and by the young man’s friends. Don Corleone’s pledge to mete out justice introduces him to the audience as someone much greater than a common thug. The scene also presents such brutal violations of young women as essentially American behavior; “My Brilliant Friend” is a piercing testament that violent machismo knows no nationality.
When Michael Corleone is “hit by the thunderbolt” when he glimpses Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli) in the Italian countryside in “The Godfather,” it’s presented as a sort of meet cute that leads to a respectful courtship and their marriage. For girls in “My Brilliant Friend,” to become the object of the Solaras’ intentions is to risk incineration by that same lightning. Michael and Sonny Corleone are the tragic heroes of their story; “My Brilliant Friend” is an unnerving reminder that they could easily have been the villains of someone else’s narrative.
And “My Brilliant Friend” illustrates that behind the great fortunes of families such as the Corleones lie not merely great crimes, but crimes that are no less devastating for their small scale. “The Godfather” shows us the establishment of drug cartels, the shifts of power in the casino business and the Corleones’ efforts to manipulate Hollywood. “My Brilliant Friend” tallies the cost to the Peluso family, who lost their carpentry shop to loan sharking, and their father, Alfred (Gennaro Canonico), to prison after he is framed for murder by the Solaras.
By some of the cruder metrics in use in today’s cultural discourse, it might be tempting to use these differences to declare “My Brilliant Friend” morally superior to “The Godfather,” and thus to anoint it the better piece of art. That would be overreach, both on critical and political grounds.
Coppola’s adaptation of “The Godfather” is one of the greatest movies of all time. And it is better-remembered than Puzo’s novel because of the judicious edits the screenplay makes to the book: Lucy Mancini’s story is a female window into the Corleone family, but her story is also influenced by midcentury sexual attitudes that make it remarkably dated. “My Brilliant Friend,” by contrast, is sometimes slowed down by its fidelity to Ferrante’s novel, particularly in its preservation of voice over narration from Lenù’s perspective.
Fortunately, one of the ways out of the traps of contemporary cultural conversation is to recognize that we don’t have to choose between these two remarkable pieces of art. Both stories — the portrayal of the Italian American struggle to assimilate in “The Godfather” and the portrait of Italian women clawing toward freedom and self-actualization in “My Brilliant Friend” — contain their own powerful truths. Watching them together isn’t a competition. The degradation and poverty that define “My Brilliant Friend” show us just how far the Corleones came. And the indifference men show to women in “The Godfather” shows us just how hard Lenù and Lila will have to fight to escape.