April 07, 2008

Mio fratello è figlio unico

Films about communism and fascism are not uncommon: in recent years we've seen Hitler's death, Stasi spies, British skinheads and operations aimed at counterfeiting alllied notes for Fascist uses. The Italian film, My brother is an only child, attempts to deal with these two movements as a way of exploring the growth of two youths near Rome in the 1960s and 1970s. But the film never really takes off to attain the heights of its subject matter- the film treats these professions as though they were youthful follies and to some extent they were, but that's all we get in terms of the analysis of the politics that we see on screen. There are some telling details- the writers and director know their fascist and communist propaganda of the day but incident crowds out ideology.

Rather than being a film about fascism and communism, this is a film about growing up. The two brothers- Accio and Manrico- are united by their strong passions for politics and women and divided in the direction of their political passion. Accio the youngest feels isolated from the rest of his family- victimised by his mother and forced to study at the technical college whilst being an accomplished classicist. Manrico, the elder brother, is a factory worker and a leading communist. Both though as the film goes on seem incomplete and adolescent, veering around madly as the real story of life goes on where they are not looking. This is particularly evident in their politics: here neither fascism nor communism are seen as systems but as illusions. We see the illusion at its most visible when Accio learns about the greatness of Mussolini or when Manrico proletarianises the Ode to Joy. We see it pervade their lives and their thoughts about their lives.

Ultimately though, their lives go on in different and much more important ways. Accio beds the wife of his mentor, Mario, and because of that leaves the fascists. He also leaves the fascists because of his devotion to Manrico's girlfriend, Francesca (played by the incredibly beautiful Diane Fleri). Manrico's relationship with Francesca causes Accio a great deal of jealousy but also a great deal of sorrow. Eventually Manrico makes Francesca pregnant- and as the story goes on, we see that pregnancy and the child produced from it as a test of the two brothers. One brother passes it and one brother fails it. Significantly at the end of the film, the brother that passes the test takes the only meaningful political action of the entire film: not an act of terrorism or an act of violence, not making a speech or berating an enemy, but an actual political act that helps people in living their lives forwards.

In reality this is as much a critique of the whole notion of being political as it is a critique of these two specific ideologies. It is a critique of the idea that one has to be violently politically motivated, that one's time spent down a pub discussing political ideas is meaningful or useful. What the film points out is that it does not compare to the time spent with one's family and that politics is a trivial game compared to life itself. There is a great truth in there. But its a truth not so much about politics as about growing up- as we grow and change we cast off our youthful frivolity (of which politics is and can be a part) and anchor our convictions in our communities. My wife, my kids, my friend matter much more to me than the abstract nouns about freedom and revolution that used to inspire me. One brother reaches the stage where people are people, the other sees them in the end as the ultimate abstraction.

The film has a good tempo to it- there are longeurs and it could have been shorter- but its tempo is nice. There is a vivacity to the way that the filmmakers tell the story which appealed to me, a lightness of touch and the music is excellent. Not to mention the performances which are all good. The ideas about politics may not be that interesting- this presents no analysis of either fascism or communism- but it does present an analysis of the way that part of political maturity is the realisation that people matter more than 'the people'. Furthermore in some sense it does suggest something about extremism: that communism and fascism can arise not so much from a false logic, but from a failed empathetic capacity- they are diseases of the psychopath and the adolescent for that reason. One of these brothers manages to get past that, the other is trapped finally in a heroic and yet harmful moment. Like Achilles he will not come back from his youth an old man, like Achilles in a sense he intends it.