April 15, 2008

Film skims surface of family, fascism

Those who have never been to Italy—and whose only lens on the place comes in the form of that nation’s artistic exports—generally have good reason to picture the country as nothing but one giant mess of bad traffic, social discord, and spectacle, abbreviated with scolding mothers and punctuated by expressive hands. Daniele Luchetti’s My Brother is an Only Child is a film in this canonical vein, and with a storyline focused on feuding brothers Manrico and Accio, is the latest take on depicting a fascination with fraternal ties that arguably goes back to the country’s mythical founding. A drama about familial ties of all kinds, the movie aspires more notably to political commentary. For those who weren’t around during the years that explain why Italy is, even today, so self-consciously factionalized—why theories of long-entrenched divisions are constantly dredged up to explain all manner of ills, and why wearing Roman colors in Piedmont can still be tantamount to a declaration of war—My Brother is an Only Child provides an attractively filmed slice-of-life look at the postwar years.

The film centers on Accio, a fanciful and flighty boy whose decided nature makes him the black sheep of his family. A nice trick of cinematography ushers him seamlessly from childhood into his teenage years, where, as a reckless youth with all the edge of his childhood self and a good deal more arrogance, he clashes constantly with older brother Manrico. Awkward and a little bit nerdy, Accio is understandably resentful of his fearless and classically handsome brother.

From the beginning, the movie throws the viewer into the thick of domestic chaos, which provides light, slapstick humor corresponding to the years of Accio’s childhood. It’s mostly Accio’s resentment toward his family that drives the story, which soon veers away from petty spats into politics. It follows the wildly divergent lives of Manrico and Accio; Manrico follows his father into industrial work and the Communist party, and Accio becomes a card-carrying Fascist. Accio isn’t a sweet boy, and, like his name suggests, he’s a bit of a bully, but he’s by no means a born Fascist, no matter what his political mentor says. With a father in the factory and a brother regarded as a student hero of the left, his joining up with the young toughs of the black shirts is basically an unavoidable reaction for a boy with Accio’s temperament. His eventual break with the reactionaries is similarly a given. Under a different actor, the role could have turned one-dimensional, but Elio Germano is charming as the older version of the main character, and his lightly ironic touch makes Accio captivating—like a train wreck.

Despite being saturated with political events and the theology of both parties, My Brother is an Only Child is not arrestingly political. For viewers, the events that consume the characters—the tumult of labor strikes, the constant annoyance of corruption, and the slow passage of time—are minor disturbances, no more worrying than Accio’s vacillating position on the political spectrum. Rather, frenetic camerawork keeps the characters themselves in the forefront, and the colors of the movie and dress of its characters are charming, at once immediate and unarguably nostalgic. Luchetti’s soundtrack blares the pop music of late-1960s Italy, most memorably when Accio, midway through a problem set, turns up the radio in a vain attempt to drown out Manrico’s midday tryst with beautiful and much-longed-for Francesca. But the movie aims to be darker than all that; the memory of Il Duce is ever-present, sometimes hilariously, but usually just as a matter of course.

Unfortunately, Luchetti’s touch ends up being overly light. The storyline introduces significant events without lingering on any of them, and the end, which comes quickly, feels too abrupt and shallow for what was hinted at. The movie’s portrayal of the brothers who are caught up—and very much grounded—in the times of their youth has an unflinching humanity, but for those who want more context, or a more removed look at this period of time, My Brother is an Only Child may be remembered as just another entry in a series of very Italian exercises in nostalgia.