Calling My Brother Is an Only Child a baby-boomer nostalgia trip may not be entirely accurate. Its depiction of ’60s radical politics isn’t exactly flattering. Nevertheless, it’s definitely enamored of that period’s Italian cinema. Like Bernardo Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution and Marco Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket, it ties together political rebellion and troubled familial relationships. Even its examination of the past isn’t completely original; the movie recalls another recent Italian drama, The Best of Youth, as much as its ’60s forefathers.
Only Child kicks off in 1962. Accio (played as a 13-year-old by Vittorio Emanuele Propizio and as an adult by Elio Germano) struggles through Catholic school, burdened by his sexual urges. His elder brother Manrico (Ricardo Scamarcio) becomes a factory worker and then gets involved in the local communist party. Accio falls in love with Manrico’s girlfriend, Francesca (Diane
Fleri). He eventually abandons right-wing politics, but Manrico’s views — and his willingness to act on them — become increasingly extreme.
1970s Italian cinema tended to interpret fascism as a product of repressed homosexuality. Only Child blames it on sibling rivalry. Creating a movie whose hero is a fascist might be a worthwhile provocation, but Accio never seems to take ideology very seriously. He drifts lazily into right-wing politics, aided by bad role models and a desire to piss off his brother. Rather than really digging into ’60s Italian politics and the reasons why leftists ultimately resorted to violence, Only Child portrays it all with a fashionable cynicism. For Luchetti, politics is primarily a game of posturing, indulged to attract women or impress other men. By showing one Italian family as a microcosm of the nation’s struggles, Only Child inadvertently trivializes its subject matter.
To its credit, Only Child’s style, full of handheld camerawork and jump cuts, attempts to breathe life into the past. No staid period piece, it’s fast-paced and relatively brief. Nevertheless, it only occasionally recaptures the urgency of early Bertolucci and Bellocchio, as in a scene where a Beethoven performance becomes a brawl between communists and fascists.
In the press kit, Luchetti insists that his movie isn’t about politics; rather, he says that “it talks about people who take stands.” That stance robs Only Child of its contemporary relevance. If political stands, whether left or right, are merely a pose, why bother examining them at all? My Brother Is an Only Child doesn’t suggest that we’ve learned anything from the failures of the ’60s. While it’s rightly critical of male swagger, it doesn’t offer any worthwhile alternatives. •