My Brilliant Friend transported me from quarantine to Italy — and made me finally track my roots
Missing his own family, Christopher DiRaddo looked for them in stories
Warm Blanket is a series of personal essays from Canadian writers and artists reflecting on the pop culture that has brought them comfort and coziness during one year of the pandemic.
My warm blanket during the pandemic has been the HBO adaptation of Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend. It was just one of a number of shows I had bookmarked to watch on Crave — but little did I know it would end up causing a chain reaction that would set me on a path to unearthing my own family's history and feeding my creative soul.
I had read all four of Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels in the last few years but put off watching the series — and I'm glad I did, because watching all 16 of the hour-long episodes was like snacking on Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Each was delicious, but I had to be careful not to overdo it. I wanted them to last.
I'm always skeptical when my favourite books are adapted for the screen, but director Saverio Costanzo did a wonderful job of bringing Ferrante's epic tale of a decades-long friendship between two Italian women to life. The story begins when both are young girls in the late 1950s and explores such weighty topics as family, feminism, class and corruption. Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo come from the same poor village, just outside of Naples; both show so much promise, but over the course of the series we get to see what happens when one's brilliance is nurtured and the other's is neglected.
I quickly found myself rationing the episodes, sometimes watching only 20 minutes at a time. The cinematography and costumes were gorgeous, plunging me deep into the era of the novels. And when I was not watching it, I was determined to stay in the mood the series had created. I immersed myself in all things Italian. I looked for playlists on Spotify. I'd listen to the classical score by composer Max Richter while writing or put on some 60s Italo-pop by artists like Mina and Patty Pravo while cooking. Hearing the Italian language spoken or sung would suddenly fill me with joy.
I soon realized that part of what I loved so much about the series was that it reminded me of my own family and our origins. Most of My Brilliant Friend takes place in the suburbs of Naples, and the adaptation was shot in the town of Caserta. My family's history begins less than an hour's drive from there. My paternal grandparents hail from San Pietro Infine (population 927), a small comune located on the main highway connecting Naples with Rome. Watching the series, I wondered if this is what life would have been like for my dad, had his parents not emigrated. He would have been close to Elena and Lila's age, also growing up in a large family and speaking a mix of Italian and Neapolitan dialect.
I, however, never learned to speak Italian. There were plenty of opportunities growing up, but I never showed any interest. To me, it was just one more subject and I was already having trouble with French. My grandparents also died around the time I was born, so there were no opportunities for me to learn directly from them — either our language or our family history.
Age 47 may be late to develop an interest in one's origins, but that's what My Brilliant Friend spawned in me during the pandemic. Suddenly, I was joining Ancestry.com and filling up my family tree. There, I found a marriage certificate for my grandparents and the manifest of the ship my grandfather took to come over, with his name clearly listed. I then began to research the town of San Pietro Infine and discovered not one but two documentaries on its tragic past: The Battle of San Pietro (by famed director John Huston) and The Forgotten City. I went on to research the disappeared Montreal neighbourhood of Goose Village where my grandparents ended up and where my dad was born, reading books and taking copious notes to inform my next writing project. Then, I joined the Association of Italian Canadian Writers and submitted work to an upcoming anthology by queer Italian Canadian writers. I don't think I am anywhere near done.
The pandemic has affected us in so many different ways, but I have to say that I feel fortunate to have had the time to research and connect with where I come from. I didn't know that I needed to do this, but I obviously did. Missing my own family, I looked for them in stories — and what I found in the world that Elena Ferrante created for her characters inspired me to study the real-life ones in mine.
Read all 12 essays from the Warm Blanket series here.