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Daniele Luchetti’s My Brother Is an Only Child also peddles familial discord rooted in strong-willed idealism, and it’s only slightly more successful. Based on a novel by Antonio Pennacchi and adapted by Luchetti and two others, the film centers on Accio, a kid from a small Italian town who decides to leave seminary school in 1962 when he discovers that his educators, like the rest of his family, are communist sympathizers. Mentored by a local street merchant, Accio becomes a card-carrying fascist while still a teenager, ensuring battles with his parents and older brother and sister for a lifetime to come.
Little Accio, a nickname that means “bully,” is an amusing spitfire played by Vittorio Emanuele Propizio, who manages to avoid the Valentín pitfall of allowing wee, foreign, and smart-alecked kids to descend into the precious and smack-worthy. (A scene in which Accio briefly denies the Holocaust is an exception, though obviously for different reasons.) When the film fast-forwards to his young adulthood, though—a shift so abrupt you’re confused at how different the brother looks before realizing it’s Accio—Elio Germano takes over the role, and though his performance is suitably passionate, his character is just not very sympathetic. Thankfully he’s got big bro Manrico (Riccardo Scamarcio) to try to talk sense to him (his sister, played by Alba Rohrwacher, mostly disappears during this period), as well as Manrico’s neglected girlfriend, Francesca (a luminous Diane Fleri), who’s also a diehard commie but ends up spending a lot of time with Accio when Manrico becomes increasingly radical.
My Brother Is an Only Child’s biggest failure isn’t Accio’s constant contentiousness—this guy seems incapable of being pleasant to anyone—or the story’s dense political center. Rather, it’s the script’s tendency to wander: The focus often shifts between Accio and Manrico, who takes a factory job and becomes a violent union leader. There are romantic tangents, not just the eventual triangle between the brothers and Francesca but also a weird, sugar-mama affair that develops between the young fascist and an older married woman. And as in Smart People, mood shifts within conversations are sometimes whiplash-inducing, leaving you wondering if the characters’ arguments are serious, just really loud teasing, or (most likely) evidence that they’re all just nuts.
The script’s strength is its dry wit, with well-placed sarcasm (particularly from Accio’s parents, played by Angela Finocchiaro and Massimo Popolizio) brightening what can feel like nearly constant arguments about both politics and pettier stuff. While the film’s involved ideological discussions are relatively smart and worthy, they unfortunately tend to bring to mind more engaging, similar-minded movies such as 2004’s The Edukators. My Brother Is an Only Child does boast a well-written and -directed coda, depicting a nonviolent revolt that buoys the film, brings its politics into focus, and, more important, finally makes Accio sympathetic. But it just leaves you wishing that you were given a chance to like the kid a little more all along.