The leader of Italy’s opposition party drops out of sight and is replaced by his bipolar identical twin, fresh from the madhouse, in Roberto Ando’s timely political dramedy “Viva la liberta” (Long Live Freedom). Anchored by Toni Servillo’s usual consummate performance(s), this winking critique of Italian politics offers several pleasurable digs at the establishment, though its staid craftsmanship and general lack of vitriol don’t provide the bite most politically inclined auds will expect. Timing should have been key, considering national elections were held one week after the pic’s release, yet local B.O. has been just OK.
Anyone following the Italian scene will be tickled by pointed allusions to the current state of affairs, Berlusconi included, though Ando could never have predicted that his protag’s decision to bail (at least temporarily) from his post would find a parallel in the Pope’s surprise step-down. In the fictional world set forth here, Enrico Oliveri (Servillo) is the head of the opposition, his party struggling to present a message that will animate the electorate. Oliveri is serious-minded and a bit cold, even to his wife Anna (Michela Cescon); Servillo plays him with a largely passive expression, his jowls pulled down from gravity and the weight of his position.
One day when he should be on a panel, he just disappears. His chief aide, Andrea Bottini (Valerio Mastandrea), skilled in equivocation, invents an excuse, but with vital meetings on the horizon, he has to do something. Then Anna tells him of Oliveri’s twin, Giovanni Ernani (a pen name), just out of a psych facility. Bottini convinces the mercurial brother to masquerade as his sibling, assuming it’s a temporary measure. But Ernani relishes his new position, electrifying constituents and members of his own party by cutting through political dealmaking and promising an alliance with the people.
Meanwhile, Oliveri is in Paris, having fled to the home of his ex-g.f. Danielle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). Now the wife of famed helmer Mung (Eric Nguyen) and mother of moppet Helene (Stella Kent), Danielle is surprised by her former flame’s appearance, but asks few questions, instead bringing him on set for the film she’s script-supervising. Here’s where “Viva” is at its weakest, unable to make Oliveri’s incertitude a source of meaningful soul-searching.
Comparisons with “Il Divo” are inevitable, not least because the film also features Servillo, as well as the great Anna Bonaiuto, here as Oliveri’s close political ally. Ando’s film is neither as daring nor as caustic, though its merits are strong enough to exist outside the shadow of Paolo Sorrentino. At its best, “Viva” captures the Italian center-left’s complete failure at marketing, showing up the absurdity of an unbalanced man, almost like Chauncy Gardiner, achieving what no politico can do: successfully package their message. However, Ando doesn’t quite manage to make the hoary conceit of identical twins feel fresh.
Servillo’s Ernani has a Steve Martin air about him, his manic smile and quicksilver facial expressions providing an amusing contrast with the emotionally guarded Oliveri. Ando’s usual d.p., Maurizio Calvesi, delivers his customary impeccable, clean visuals, and location work is attractive and suitable. While the excerpting of motifs from Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” adds a further layer of criticism, its themes can feel overused.