For its first half, I held very high hopes for Love's Brother. From its first moments – in which Angelo (Giovanni Ribisi) receives a reply from a woman in Italy whom he hopes will marry him – the film proceeds discreetly, not saying or showing everything, inventing clever, crisp ways to convey situations.
Angelo is the older brother of the Donnini family. He is not as experienced or as fortunate with women as his younger brother, Gino (Adam Garcia). But Gino has his own problems: partly out of obligation and partly out of love, he frequently puts his own happiness on hold to help out Angelo. This is much to the chagrin of Gino's vivacious girlfriend, Connie (Silvia de Santis).
In a bold but also disastrous move, Angelo sends off one last letter to a possible wife, Rosetta (Amelia Warner) – switching his homely photo for the more glamorous snap of his brother. Only after Rosetta has made the momentous journey from her homeland to Australia will the consequences of this gesture be faced.
Jan Sardi, making his directorial debut here, wrote the overrated hit Shine (1996). As far as I am concerned, everyone closely involved with that success – director, writer, star, producer – will be forever associated with a certain implacably safe, middlebrow conception of what movies should be or do.
But middlebrow is not always a bad thing, and Love's Brother, at its best, comes close to redeeming it. Of course, the film comes with most of the comfortable compromises familiar from similar middlebrow projects. This is a story about an Italian community of the late' 50s in rural Victoria in which almost no one, not even the elderly, speak more than a few words of Italian – subtitles might scare off the mass audience! – and in which various non-Italian actors valiantly struggle with a painfully exaggerated accent.
It is also the kind of film in which the historical facts of racism in Australia, while fleetingly acknowledged, are downplayed almost to the point of non-existence. Apart from a few Aussie bruisers who give Gino a dirty look at a dance and Connie's memory of being called a 'smelly wog' in the schoolyard, no hard reality is allowed to intrude on the insular love story.
But we can accept such compromises in a film that weaves its references – to Cyrano de Bergerac and Il Postino (1994), for instance – with such persuasive grace. And the most graceful note of all is struck by Ribisi. Frankly, he acts everybody else off the screen in this movie. He does this not through showy exaggeration, but quiet intensity. Ribisi has that special kind of concentrated physical presence which a camera loves and enhances. Even during the least engaging or convincing scenes, he holds our attention.
Why does Love's Brother eventually lose the plot? At its mid-way point, Sardi skips over the wedding feast of Angelo and Rosetta, and whisks us straight to the unusual sleeping arrangement which no one in the family or community seems to mind or question: Angelo bunks in with his brother while Rosetta stays in Gino's room, delaying the all-important moment of consummation while she sorts out the confusions sown in her mind by the photo-switch.
From this point, nothing seems emotionally real in the story, and the incidents – such as an outing involving the fraught trio and Connie – appear increasingly contrived. Sardi seems unwilling to question Rosetta's romantic dream, and uninterested in exploring the possibilities of mixing and matching the four central characters in a daring way – as all the great comedies of love invariably do.
Love's Brother exhibits much greater craft than most Australian movies do, but in one sense this international co-production remains disappointingly local in its sensibility – it simply does not push its premise far enough, or take enough risks before arriving at its predictable conclusion. And what a pity this is, because Love's Brother is one half of a terrific film.
© Adrian Martin March 2004