My Brother is an Only Child

(Originally published on the Examiner in October 2009, this review has been moved here in its entirety.)

Two brothers: one, Accio (Elio Germano), a fascist, the other, Manrico (Riccardo Scamarcio), a communist. As the Netflix envelope tells us, they "remain close despite their opposing political views, but when they both fall for the same woman, the rift between them grows." Actually, the story is more complicated - and interesting - than that. Manrico's commitment to his cause is greater than Accio's; the latter is a right-winger by virtue of heady testosterone, lingering Catholic traditionalism, and blistering sexual frustration. Besides, about two-thirds of the way through the film, Accio is no longer a modern-day Mussolini wannabe, so the film's potentially glib hook is not in play anymore. Meanwhile, the woman, Francesca (Diane Fleri), remains Manrico's lover throughout; and Accio's attraction to her may actually bond the brothers closer rather than split them apart. The film spans fifteen years, though the siblings don't quite age accordingly, and the storyline offers a political progression to match the familial dissolution. In the end, My Brother is an Only Child is an entertaining and at times though-provoking movie, if not a terribly deep one.

At its best, the film is a wry, warm portrait of sibling rivalry, a kind of coming-of-age comedy shot through a prism of extremist ideologies. While its heart certainly seems set on Manrico's leftism, the movie humors Accio's fascist blustering, seeing the bumbling blackshirts of the 60s as inadvertent comedians rather than sinister hoodlums. Occasionally, a satirical slingshot is aimed at the radicals as well. Particularly amusing is the Beethoven concert, initially a moving tribute from young revolutionaries to a musical iconoclast. Quickly, though, it becomes a silly socialist singalong when "Ode to Joy" receives embarrassing new lyrics, by way of placards extolling the virtues of Mao, Lenin, and Stalin. Accio himself eventually joins "the movement" (he's astonished to find out he doesn't get a membership card) but his political insight is still outstripped by a headlong obsession with "action". Meanwhile Manrico heads for the thickets of radical terror - while the name "Red Brigades" is never evoked, it seems clear that the once idealist worker has descended into Italy's version of the Weather Underground and Baader-Meinhof Gang. At film's end, only Accio seems to have a clear idea of how to make the struggle real, fusing political activism and family commitment in one impulsive, yet surprisingly intelligent, action.

The political history of 60s and 70s Italy is painted with a rather broad brush. One does miss a deep understanding of the Communist Party's relationship to radical activism (the film paints the two as glove and hand, respectively, when in fact their interests did not coincide until well into the 70s), as well as the actual role fascist recidivists played in state repression (indeed, the state hardly registers, save for the climax and a brief aside leading up to it - in this film, the political is very, very personal). At times, with the brothers representing differing ideologies, and with most of the action focused through the backwater Mussolini-built town of Latina, the movie takes on the quality of a fable, so it seems appropriate that the politics are simplified and streamlined. Besides, how much intricate ideological parsing can an audience take? Even so the era is evoked with some sharp flourishes; for example, the TV flashes images of 1968's international revolution, while Accio sits down in front of a hot plate and informs us, via narration, "The revolution never came to Latina. I think I spent most of that year in the kitchen."

The relationship between the brothers plays with goofy charm and warmth. You end up liking both of them - Accio, despite his political idiocy, and Manrico, despite his callous self-centeredness (he coasts on his charisma to bed women and then leave them hanging; ultimately, it's his own family he leaves hanging). Germano, as Accio, is magnetic with his enigmatic smiles and self-effacing jokiness, though occasionally, he tries a bit too hard to echo Robert De Niro (the two even look a bit alike). Ricardo Scamarcio is not quite as intriguing, but he's just as good as he needs to be for the part. Taking what could be a thankless Che Guevera pin-up rad doll and infusing him with humanity and genuine charisma, we can see why the youthful activists and old mamas of the village alike fall under Manrico's spell. Meanwhile, Diane Fleri embodies Francesca with such engaging warmth that we can sense immediately how both Manrico and Accio could fall for this pretty young activist in their own way; her bright smile outshines any red star or Mussolini medallion. One scene, in which Accio bids her farewell with a playful fascist salute and she returns the gesture with a grin and a mock fist of solidarity, rather nicely evokes the humanist way in which the film attempts to transcend political boundaries.

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