Viewers would probably benefit by having a sense of Italy's history-- and the history of Italian cinema--to get a good grasp on the film. Otherwise, it may seem uneven and spotty. If you haven't already, I recommend watching Best of Youth, Fist in the Pocket, Bicycle Thief, Rocco and His Brothers, I'm Not Afraid and even Lina Wertmeuller's Swept Away to put this film in context.
Italian cinema has a tradition of basing their films on literature, classical drama, and political and intellectual concerns. As a cultural group, they are first to speak up about injustices of the status quo. Such is the case with Mio Fratello e'Unico Figlio ( My Brother is an Only Child).
It is a story of a family living on the outskirts of Rome. In the 60s and 70s things were pretty rural in the town of Latino; excitement resided elsewhere--Rome, for example. Within the family, there is the Communist brother Manrico; a fascist younger brother Accio; and a Christian Democrat father. The mother is work-worn and weary of living in government housing with walls that crack right before her eyes. The sister, a delicate thing, is the only member of the household who has privilege. She attends the classical high school and plays the cello in an orchestra. The family is a microcosm of Italy, with its disagreeing, often violently factious, parties crowded together in a small house.
Crowded they are. The film bombards viewer's senses with the bonds of intimacy and conflict within the family. Manrico and Accio fighting,for example. We hear their bones knocking against each other, the thud of a foot in the stomach. We see the anguish of the family as they walk down the road to the school house to confront the daughter's professor, who supposedly is taking advantage of the girl. There is religious artwork on every wall ; the eyes of Jesus watch everything that goes on. The harshly lit kitchen table where Accio does his homework. The kissing, the sex, the thinly closed doors behind which the brothers make love. Manrico and Accio love the same girl.
Francesca, the beautiful girl they love, is the daughter of an engineer at the local factory. She gets pregnant to Manrico and her family rejects her. They do not want a grandson who is the descendant of a worker,
The split and love between the brothers is the center of the story. Manrico, a charismatic, Communist organizer speaks up for the masses and wants to make art and culture available to the workers. Accio start out a black-shirt fascist who salutes il Duce, doses Communist cars with petrol and sets them afire.
But the good brother becomes the bad one and Accio the good brother. Accio points out to his fervent Communist brother that their father is the real worker. Manrico's politics push him to become a `kneecapper,' a leftist who shoots rich factory owners in the knees and then steals their briefcases full of money. "Can you imagine our father with a gun?" he asks.
Manrico goes underground and eventually his murderous deeds catch up with him. Accio ends up being the father to Manrico's toddler son and takes him to live in the crowded house back in Latino.
The meaning of the film's title is not clear until the very end.
Interwoven with the politics and family is the rawness of coming of age, of being a passionate teenager who has political ideals, a vision of the future, and a committed sense of right and wrong. European children grown up more quickly and are wiser, I think than our American children who are often victims of privilege.
Privilege: that's the big reason we do not make films like My Brother is an Only Child in America: American's prefer , both in the present and historically, to reinforce the privilege of our culture rather than look at issues such as the struggle of the masses and dissatisfaction of the status quo.
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