By James Van Maanen
My Brother is an Only Child. You can't help but smile upon hearing the title of this new Italian movie, a boffo hit in its native land and one that might just prove popular across western "democracies." Its leading characters - two brothers as compatible as the proverbial oil and water - spend much of the movie in battles literal and symbolic. Because one is a Communist, the other joins the Fascist party. And so on. Of course they fall for the same girl.
Italian film has had a hard time reaching American arthouse audiences over the past decade or more. Gone are the days when a Fellini, Visconti and Antonioni movie perked the minds of moviegoers. (Gone, too, are those great directors.) Daniele Luchetti, the director of the movie at hand, is nearing 50, so he's no spring chicken. He grew up in the prime of another trio of important Italian moviemakers: Bellocchio, Bertolucci and Pasolini. Not surprisingly, his film reflects their influence while remaining very much its own.
Based upon the novel Il Fasciocomunista (another good title!) by Antonio Pennacchi, the screenplay is the work of Luchetti and the pair of writers responsible for that very fine television/theatrical film The Best of Youth. This quartet of talents has come up with a movie that, though set back in the 1960s and 70s, offers an immediacy that is palpable and thrilling. Luchetti combines hand-held camera work with a sense of improvisation (in both the performances and the filmmaking in general) and a special kind of roughness that adds to the reality.
If you know something of Italian politics (where the Communist party is seen as, shall we say, more legitimate than it is here in the US) and history (are you old enough to recall the Red Brigades?), the movie should rivet you, easily transporting you back a few decades. Even if you're young, Luchetti and company have fashioned a film that moves fast, is relatively easy to follow and filled with humor, irony, pain and fun. Plus, for anyone who's had a love/hate relationship with his/her sibling, this one's a slam dunk.
Luchetti says this is not a political film, but you'd be hard put to find an American movie as political as My Brother, from Primary Colors of a decade ago right up to last year's Blue State (which never saw a theatrical release). It's also a most humane film, in which the people count more than the politics, though it does come down hard and strong for a system that works for the greater good.
My Brother is an Only Child is blessed with a crack cast that essays roles large and small with specificity and grace. The protagonist, who goes from studying for the priesthood to fascist-in-training, is played by Elio Germano (Respiro, Do You Like Hitchcock?). He recently won Italy's Best Actor award for his performance; you'll see why. The role of his brother, a charismatic Communist who leads a Beethoven concert unlike anything you've heard, is handled by a talented looker named Riccardo Scamarcio (The Best of Youth and Abel Ferrara's new Go-Go Tales), who received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his efforts here). The object of the brothers' mutual attraction is played by newcomer Diane Fleri, whom you may have caught in a smaller role in Gabriele Muccino's wonderful But Forever in My Mind. Kudos to the estimable THiNKfilm for giving this one a theatrical release.
I'm sitting in the New York City offices of THiNKfilm on Madison Avenue, waiting for what was supposed to be an in-person interview with Daniele Luchetti, but unfortunately, he's had to cancel his trip at the last minute. He's kindly agreed to do a phone interview, so I and a very smart and fast translator sit at a large conference table, in the middle of which has been placed a speaker-phone - from which soon emanates a man's voice, speaking Italian...
First off, we are so sorry that this interview isn't taking place in person and that you were not able to come to NYC right now.
Thank you. I am most sorry, too. I would love to be there.
In the press information for My Brother Is an Only Child, you mention that you do not see this film as "political." But as I watched the film, it seemed to me to be very political: Not for or against a particular political party or belief, but political because it shows us the importance of having a political philosophy that actually aspires to something worthwhile. (Spoiler ahead: see the movie and then come back to this interview.) Isn't this what your character Accio has achieved by the end of the film? He believes in something, he translates this belief into action, and he accomplishes something worthwhile. As opposed to his brother, or the Church, or the Fascist party members.
I totally agree with you. When I say that my film is not political, it means that I don't want it to be seen as part of that film style, which, in Italy, we call the "ideological film." That type of film was aimed at proving that one political party or philosophy was better than the other and so one must stand on one side, as opposed to the other. That sort of movie is a political propaganda film. But My Brother Is an Only Child is indeed a political film about the need to be active at a political level. In a way, I wanted to describe a thoughtful way of handling politics. While I am totally against ideology as such, I am pro-politics.
I agree with you on that! This film also seemed very different from anything I saw at last year's Open Roads: New Italian Cinema series. The style seemed much more immediate, and it was not just a matter of hand-held cameras or using hi-def video. Or was this hi-def video?
No, it was not made on high-definition video.
I realize that you had your actors improvise to an extent, and used some of the techniques that were used by the famous directors of the 60s and 70s: Bertolucci, Bellocchio, Pasolini. The result is that My Brother is an extraordinarily vital, lively movie. We don't have the opportunity to see so many Italian films here in the US anymore. When I was younger, we seemed to get so many more of these, so it makes me very happy that we are going to have the chance to see this one released theatrically. And, should it prove popular, which I hope, we may see even more new Italian films released in North America.
I believe that in Italy the quality of our films has been improving year after year. Right now, in the Italian market, 40% of the films shown are Italian. And that is a very high figure, one that has not been reached in the last 20 years. That is a very good record for current Italian movies!
This is great news, and it shows that the quality has improved. And this may partially account for why we over here have not been seeing so many Italian films: Because the Italian people themselves were not seeing or enjoying their own films! For a while, at least.
I believe that what happened during the past 20 years is a sign of the difficulty that our filmmakers had in communicating with their audience, not only locally but internationally. I often watch old Italian classics from the 60s. Just the other night I was watching one of these, a US edition of an Italian classic and...
The Criterion release of Mafioso, with Alberto Sordi. I believe that, after the 70s, this great communicative power that Italian filmmakers found sort of... got lost. And some of our greatest talent began moving over to television. But recently, I think this has begun to change because TV does not allow the freedom that cinema does. I think our own filmmakers have begun to understand this and are moving back toward cinema.
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