Clearly intended to evoke Italy's great cinematic history, My Brother Is an Only Child is set in the same period as many of Bertolucci's films—particularly The Conformist, Before the Revolution, and 2003's depressing throwback The Dreamers. The plot even sounds like something you've heard before (perhaps from cowriters Stefano Rulli and Sandro Petralgia's The Best of Youth): Two brothers are pulled to opposing ends of the political spectrum. Accio (Elio Germano) becomes a full-blown fascist, participating in vandalism against the state. Manrico (Riccardo Scamarcio) starts out as a union man, but soon he's organizing Communist rallies and becoming a revolutionary.
There's also a girl, of course, and of course she starts out with Manrico and winds up being tempted by the thuggish charms of Accio. And it's all against the backdrop of an Italy that is, exactly like the brothers, torn between the forces of fascism and Communism.
My Brother Is an Only Child is exactly the kind of stereotypical foreign movie at which casual American filmgoers turn up their noses: There's an existential kind of erotic longing, even though only Scamarcio is sexy. The brothers are given long stretches of film to do nothing but gaze off wistfully and emote, and any real drama is tamped down the moment it threatens to get interesting. Germano plays his fascist as a brat, and the occasional beatings that Scamarcio gives him are some of the film's few genuine joys.