Warning: Article contains spoilers.
‘Brothers in arms’ is one of those old chestnuts that can be taken two ways, like a flip of a coin. Taken in its usual context, it’s a motto for a military unit, the so-called ‘band of brothers,’ with the ‘arms’ being weapons. Flip it over, and it’s an expression of familial love. Yet both share the quality of brotherhood—one expressed through solidarity in violence, the other sometimes through violence in solidarity—the latter often an apt description of family life. And it’s an apt summary of the theme underlying Daniele Luchetti’s 2007 film My Brother is an Only Child (Mio fratello è figlio unico).
But far more than that is at work here. Luchetti ventures into bold territory, exploring what must surely be a controversial subject given 20th century Italian history. Through two brothers, Manrico and Accio Benassi, the director explores the psychology of political extremism. What’s curious is its setting in the 1960s. It seems that while most Western adolescents are losing themselves in sex, drugs and rock ’n roll, the brothers Benassi are flirting with revolutionary politics. Manrico is a loyal Communist, an ideology his sister and parents share, in part due to the shabby conditions of their lives as the working poor.
Accio on the other hand is slated to become a Catholic priest but soon realizes he is temperamentally unsuited to the monastic life. He finds himself inexplicably drawn to the Fascist ideology, seeing what he perceives in Manrico and his comrades as a wishy-washy idealism lacking action. Although at first a shock in the film, Accio’s choice is consistent with the implicit and explicit violence of Benassi family life. Accio (meaning ‘bully’) finds himself the black sheep of the family, a role intensified by his Fascist flirtations.
The family’s Communist leanings have made them as intolerant of Accio’s beliefs as if he’d converted to Protestantism. We see how intolerance and the violence that often accompanies it conditions yet more of the same in the unfortunate recipients. It’s a wonder anyone could survive such constant family chaos with any degree of sanity. Accio’s belligerent nature soon finds an outlet in mindless Fascist muggings. The director seems to suggest that his repressed sexual life also holds a clue to his violent outbursts of testosterone.
Gradually however Accio realizes the contradictions inherent in a political philosophy that can’t even get its own history right. He realizes this not from the books he is constantly studying (he has a passion for the Latin language) but from several shocking incidents. The first comes when he arrogantly insults a Fascist boss and is beaten by his own comrades. The second comes when they are instructed to burn the cars of known Communists, his family’s included. His mentor, the middle-aged Fascist Bella Nastri, is leading the gang in the action. Accio pleads with him not to do it—the cars are all owned by working people who are still making payments. Although Nastri agrees not to burn the family car, they burn the rest.
A pivotal scene arrives when Accio attends the debut concert of his sister with the Communist party orchestra. The party’s elder statesman has taken the liberty of rewriting the poem from Beethoven’s Ode to Joy to reflect Communist slogans. As if to really make the point comical, Luchetti has the gentleman hold up cue cards for the choir as they perform. Slowly a group of Fascists arrives at the doors of the hall and in the gallery above, raining down pamphlets and angry slogans. Some are calling the Communist performance a desecration of Beethoven’s genius. Accio confronts one of his former comrades, pointing out that he’d never known them to care about Beethoven before. The performance is disrupted, the hall emptied, but (unusually for this film) no one is seriously injured.
The overall effect is to demonstrate the ridiculousness of both ideologies, and even the idiocy that they are pitted against each other. Luchetti could have played the comedy more broadly but the tone of the film guards against straying into farce. It is after all a family drama as much as a political one, which is as true in life as in art. Although the metaphor may seem too obvious—the brothers as two halves of the same soul—it’s thoroughly appropriate in a political drama of this nature. In retreating into the narrow confines of dogma—whether political or religious—we end up fighting ourselves, or merely the reflection of our shadow in others. A more futile struggle can hardly be imagined, yet we enact it over and over again throughout history. Dogma breeds intolerance, which in less balanced minds breeds fanaticism, which breeds violence, which feeds the whole eternally damned cycle.
Luchetti creates real characters whose experiences teach them something. The irony is that the suave, sexy Manrico ends up becoming more and more extremist and violent while Accio the supposed bully is gradually disabused of his Fascist infatuation. For a while he even joins the Communists. In the end, while his brother has graduated to guns and bombs, Accio gets down to brass tacks and helps his parents and their neighbours organize to get desperately needed housing that had been promised and built but never delivered. He ‘comes up the middle’ between the two extremes and serves his community—something the Chinese might describe as ‘the middle way,’ probably the only way forward now for humanity in the 21st century. Luchetti deserves credit for courage, tackling such a difficult theme. I’m willing to bet many Italian filmmakers wouldn’t touch a Fascist theme with a ten-foot pole in this era.
But My Brother is an Only Child should probably be book-ended with The Leopard (1963), a classic Italian film starring of all people Burt Lancaster. ‘The Leopard’ of the film is Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, an aristocratic patriarch in 1860s Sicily who watches somewhat nervously while the social democratic movement sweeps through Italy. Yet like a true feline, Prince Salina never loses his cool and never allows himself to be drawn into the political fray, at least, not until and unless it benefits the corporate entity his family represents. Some reviewers have characterized the Prince as indecisive, a kind of Hamlet figure unable to form any firm resolve. This misses the whole point of the film. Prince Salina, like a leopard in the wild, merely waits and watches from the sidelines while the herd tires itself running in circles. When he does strike, it’s subtle, strategic and thoroughly calculated to set his opponents against each other. When that fails, he exercises both his aristocratic gravitas and his intellect for cool negotiation to ensure that his fortunes will be spared, even if his political power is temporarily neutered in the ‘new order.’
In The Leopard we see how the One Percent maintain their stranglehold—through cunning, clever if heartless manipulation, and the power of illusion. Even though the old world of aristocratic privilege is crumbling, Prince Salina carries himself like a lord and speaks calmly but decisively, as if what he says is self-evident. He is the ultimate patriarch, and the women in his family have no say. This gravitas contains a vein of genuine courage under fire, even though it’s a carefully constructed illusion used by the elite to cow people into submission. An illusion built on the notion that bluebloods are somehow inherently superior, and that—if left to themselves—the rabble will descend into violent anarchy.
In fact it’s a highly cynical view of human nature that tends to be self-reinforcing. Push enough people to the margins of survival and you can hardly expect them not to get fed up and react eventually. And in select cases the elite actively exercise the principle of Divide and Conquer to set political extremists at each others’ throats. Yet in the absence of pyramidal hierarchy life goes on reasonably well, thank you very much.
As Darwin protégé Peter Kropotkin discovered in the ‘mutual aid’ thesis he developed, when Imperial Rome’s end collapsed Europe into ‘the Dark Ages,’ cooperation rather than anarchy was the general rule. The imperium may have fallen, but individual villages and cities just got on with the business of living. Many crafted community charters to ensure that no one in the village—widows, orphans, the sick, the elderly—went without. Hardly the barbarism predicted. Then with the rise of the Borgias and other mercantile millionaire houses of the Renaissance period, histories had to be cast or recast in the light of the resurgent oligarchy. Quite simply, the new Italian aristocracy had to justify its existence and its right to a leopard’s share of society’s wealth. Just as the corporate oligarchy does today. The Leopard actually made me shudder: will we never be rid of the One Percent?
Well, maybe not. But neither will we ever be without our innate need to cooperate, at least in times of crisis. As Kropotkin wrote in his book Mutual Aid, “The mutual aid tendency in man… is so deeply interwoven with all the past evolution of the human race, that it has been maintained by mankind up to the present time, notwithstanding all vicissitudes of history. It was chiefly evolved during periods of peace and prosperity; but when even the greatest calamities befell men—when whole countries were laid waste by wars, and whole populations were decimated by misery, or groaned under the yoke of tyranny—the same tendency continued to live in the villages and among the poorer classes in the towns; it still kept them together, and in the long run it reacted even upon those ruling, fighting, and devastating minorities which dismissed it as sentimental nonsense.”
Once again I say: Amen.
—With special thanks to Anne Champagne for her insights.