Helmer Daniele Luchetti keeps the mood light and winning in “My Brother Is an Only Child,” a micro-tale of Italy’s troubled years in the late ’60s and ’70s, viewed through the prism of a politically divided family. Scripted by “The Best of Youth” duo who brought the post-WWII years into stark and moving light, pic offers a warm humor that illuminates the defiant vista of hope even when the proceedings turn tragic. Strong reviews and cast of hot actors ensured a No. 1 spot in the film’s first frame last weekend, and upcoming Cannes slot augurs at least Euro arthouse interest.
Both Luchetti and producers were keen to avoid making a “political film,” which means that instead of pointed commentary there’s an unadventurous playfulness unlikely to generate debate. To those who feel Italy has yet to process its fascist past, “My Brother” comes as further proof, using an accepted jocularity in dealing with misguided members of the far right that masks the insidiousness of this form of nostalgia.
Inquisitive adolescent Accio (Vittorio Emanuele Propizio) isn’t destined to remain in a seminary for very long. The youngest child of a working-class couple south of Rome, Accio returns to the family home, frustrating his parents’ desire for tranquility and engaging in rough-and-tumble fights with favored older brother Manrico (Riccardo Scamarcio).
After a beautifully staged transition, a slightly older Accio (Elio Germano) is already under the sway of local Fascist Party leader Mario (Luca Zingaretti). More a rebellion against his family’s leftist beliefs than a true calling, Accio’s solidarity with his fascist brothers (pilgrimages to Mussolini’s grave, small hooligan assaults) is undermined by his lack of doctrinal commitment.
His affiliations begin to change when Mario and his hoodlums target Manrico, now a communist organizer at a local factory. Luchetti finally injects a sinister note during a student performance of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”; the hall is surrounded by blackshirts objecting to Marxist sentiments expressed in the amusingly reworked libretto. This leads to a bust-up that marks Accio’s definitive break with his former cohorts.
Never truly committed to anything, Accio basically floats around, following at a distance Manrico’s forays into more radical politics while harboring a crush on his brother’s girl, Francesca (Diane Fleri). Hereon, the script becomesmore episodic, with an undefined sense of the passing of time and characters, such as sister Violetta (Alba Rohrwacher) and their materfamilias (the superb Angela Finocchiaro, making every scene her own).
Still, Luchetti does provide some necessary punch near the end, reinforcing the idea that political stances are mere decorations around basic human decency. Together with scribes Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli, he’s crafted a solid, enjoyable entertainment. But inevitable comparisons with “The Best of Youth” — also about two brothers of disparate political convictions — fall short precisely because the writers have bargained away political incisiveness for likeable characters.
The role of Accio, all nervous energy bundled around a winning warmth, is tailor-made for Germano (“Napoleon and Me”), who’s never been so appealing. He’s perfectly cast against reigning heartthrob Scamarcio, who puts his bedroom eyes to effective use and proves he can combine sex-symbol status with something more serious. Their semi-playful fights as kids suggest the dueling of tiger cubs — useful training exercises to prepare them for their positions later in life.
Story is set in Latina, a city created by Mussolini out of the Pontine Marshes that’s a perfect training ground for a family in search of stability in a rootless world. Claudio Collepiccolo’s largely handheld lensing becomes involved with the characters without feeling obtrusive, while the selection of ’60s and ’70s pop tunes by Nada and Little Tony are a perfect accompaniment.