Perhaps because compatriots Bernardo Bertolucci (Before the Revolution/The Conformist) and Marco Bellocchio (China is Near/ Good Morning, Night) raised the bar so high for films about radical politics that filmmaker Daniele Luchetti, if he so much as knows his filmic ancestors, seems to have resigned himself to repeat the cinematically hackneyed aspects of the turbulent 1960s in which his film is set, in favor of the dynamics of his easily predictable story. Instead of attempting an ambitious and noble film, Luchetti settles on a highly orthodox filmmaking meant, presumably, to capitalize on the commercial potential of a powder-keg premise.
My Brother is An Only Child, true enough, features some explosive action, but foregrounds a straightforward story; here it is the dramatization on the theme of sibling rivalry. But its story of two brothers – the Benassi brothers, the teenage Fascist Accio and the older Marxist Manrico – is not founded on a relationship of fatal jealousy, or treachery, or betrayal. Its plot skirts that with a more conciliatory statement -- that family is family, regardless of how someone is the fair-haired boy, given the lion-share of opportunities and the imprimatur of the family. Commendably, director Luchetti opts to frame the picaresque experiences of the younger sibling, Accio, as he comes of age, the hard way.
What remains noteworthy, too, are the contradictions in Accio's makeup. He may be feared for his street thuggery, acquiring for him aliases along the way, but he remains an awkward teenager who has yet to experience a young man’s rites of passage. His virtues are apparent in scenes where he cherishes his books and learning Latin. He would like nothing better than to attend a classical university. Perhaps it is out of resentment of Manrico, perhaps out of his consignment to a technical school by his family, that he has come to idolize the proto-Fascist Mussollini and has joined Neo-Fascist elements who battle Marxists in the streets.
Manrico draws near to being a cookie-cutter figure, but his understated affection for Accio is a nuance that sets him apart. The family condones -- if not dotes on -- his fashionable Marxist leanings and his role as a union leader at a factory – remember, these are the 1960s – but he leads a double life throughout the film. For a mere factory worker, he is surprisingly in easy control of stashes of money he won’t hesitate to spend on himself. His cavalier regard for women also seems to hint at compromised ideals.
Quite devoid of imagination, the film installs a woman, and not extreme ideologies, between the two brothers. Accio can only look on and carry a torch for Francesca, while Manrico cheats on her. Like Manrico, Francesca is a Marxist, but enjoys the presence of Accio and their dialectical debates. There are not many surprises throughout: the film can be distilled into the aforementioned ménage-a-trois. When the film springs a surprise at the end, it registers like a tacked-on contrivance. My Brother is An Only Child concludes with a fantastic ending that seems out of left field and rather unearned.
If Bertolucci and Bellocchio operate on a more sensible and more intellectual plane, Luchetti’s hashing out of ideological dilemmas is unimaginatively literalistic, fraught with images of tensions and frictions and pitch battles in the streets between Neo-Fascists and Marxists. Granted, it sketches the cynical measures of radicalism that extremists of both sides have been known to employ, but what new insight or vantage can it proffer? Well, Bertolucci may yet come out of semi-retirement, but Bellocchio still seems to be alive and kicking and cranking out films. There is no tossing and turning in the graves yet.