Boys Will Be Boys

The adventures of a fascist (My Brother Is an Only Child) and a professional poker player (Deal). Choose the fascist.

In the 1960s in the town of Latina, Lazio, south of Rome near Anzio, two brothers, sons of a factory worker, take different sides in a political struggle that has been going on in Italy since the industrial revolution.

The older brother, Manrico Benassi (Riccardo Scamarcio), follows his father and most of his buddies at the factory into the Communist party. But his younger brother Accio (Elio Germano), who initially begins studying at a monastery in hopes of entering the priesthood, drops out and falls under the influence of a local street merchant and petty hood named Mario Nastri (Luca Zingaretti).

Mario, a shaven-headed bully boy, sees in Accio the ideal fascist — young, unsophisticated, brash, not especially reflective in nature (he was kicked out of the monastery for fighting), with a chip on his shoulder, always ready to slug it out. A walking chunk of testosterone, Accio is open to suggestions, and Mario fills him up with tales of the glories of Mussolini’s Italy, which Accio is too young to remember. He spots a photo in a book and asks Mario why it is that the Italian people, who Mario says loved Il Duce so much, would string up him and his mistress like a couple of pigs. Mario blurts out something about treachery and Accio lets it pass. Fascism is a no-brainer pressure release for him. Soon, Accio is helping Mario and his fascist pals disrupt the anti-Vietnam-war protests that Manrico and his comrades have been staging. The stage is set for a fraternal battle royal.

But things aren’t quite that simple in director Daniele Luchetti’s My Brother Is an Only Child (Mio fratello é figlio unico), a fiercely intelligent yet unabashedly sentimental character study that latches on to the brothers Benassi for dear life, because their story is more or less the story of Italy in the ’60s and ’70s, one of that country’s most tumultuous eras. The screenplay, adapted from the novel by Antonio Pennacchi, is by Luchetti, Sandro Petraglia, and Stefano Rulli, the latter two of whom wrote The Best of Youth (La meglio gioventú), one of the most popular Italian films to hit American art screens in the past several years.

One of the reasons The Best of Youth is so beloved is that it shows, in intimate family terms anyone can relate to, that people change over the course of their lives. So it is with Accio and Manrico. The boys slept in the same bed for years while their parents waited and waited for their spot in a new government-subsidized housing project. It never came. Handsome Manrico attracts his share of the girls, but Accio is the one the ladies can’t resist — not even Bella, Mario’s lusty wife (Anna Bonaiuto). Meanwhile, mama Amelia Benassi (Angela Finocchiaro) is the picture of simmering, frustrated Roman motherhood, always having to pick up her sons’ messes and doing without her fair share.

The wonder years of the Benassi brothers are the time of the Red Brigades, the so-called Years of Lead (anni di piombo) when leftist revolutionaries made so bold as to kidnap the former prime minister, Aldo Moro, and execute him, among other terrorist exploits. American audiences, stuck like ducks in an oil slick in the midst of an election year in which there’s much more in common between the politics of one side and the other, can only marvel — or shudder — at the background against which Accio, Manrico, and Manrico’s girlfriend Francesca (Diane Fleri, in a soulful performance) play out their lives. Compared to the all-smothering security blanket of political life in the US, Accio and Manrico’s Italy not only seems the wildest, most unpredictable country on the planet, but also a land in which ideology and philosophy actually have a place in popular political discourse, as opposed to bland, empty platitudes. Stormy as it is, there’s still time for ironic humor — check out the “politically correct Beethoven’s Ninth.”

Filmmaker Luchetti was reportedly inspired by the early films of Bernardo Bertolucci and Marco Bellochio, makers of such films as Fists in the Pocket, China Is Near, and Before the Revolution, in which characters very much like the impetuous Accio and his steady, resolute brother Manrico — actors Germano and Scamarcio turn in magnificent, multilayered acting jobs — struggle with the left-right give-and-take that, of course, still exists in the land of Berlusconi.

Nothing up their sleeves

Let’s pretend for a minute that no one ever made a movie about a young man in a dangerous/glamorous profession being mentored by a former top man in that field who still has something left to prove. And furthermore, let’s make believe that no one has ever done a movie about poker. In that case, Deal would still be one of the worst movies of the year, an embarrassingly toothless and endlessly boring story about characters we barely get to know doing things that are more exciting than they make it seem.

Alex Stillman (TV actor Bret Harrison) is a typical college graduate infatuated with poker — from playing it with his cigar-puffing, backwards-baseball-cap friends and online — who now wants to take it to the next level on the pro poker circuit. It sure beats law-clerking for his dad’s firm in LA. From a chance meeting, Alex comes under the tutelage of Tommy Vinson (Burt Reynolds, pussyfooting warily, as if worried he’s taking a paycheck by fraud), a retired poker ace who now sits in front of the tube dreaming of taking down huge pots — except that his wife Helen (Maria Mason) made him promise he’d quit. You can guess the rest.

On their way to the super-duper World Poker Tour Championship at the wowie-zowie Bellagio in Las Vegas, Tommy tries to toughen up the kid. One of his pranks involves sending Alex up to the bar to hit on a couple of svelte young women, in order to build his confidence. How could a guy who can’t tell the difference between a Vegas lounge hooker (Shannon Elizabeth) and an ordinary tourist bluff his way to an $8 million hand of Texas Hold ‘Em? Why didn’t Michelle charge him for the long-time? Why couldn’t director Gil Cates Jr. get James Wood more than two seconds of screen time instead of poor old Charles Durning? And why did Alex fold that pair of sixes? We’ll never know and we don’t care. Now we’re going to go back and watch California Split, The Cincinnati Kid, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, read a couple of chapters of Scarne on Cards, and forget about Deal. 

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