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Love's Brother

Reviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 03/23/04 13:28:42

"Sweetness and light"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Can you fall deeply, resolutely in love with someone from a photograph? That’s the question at the heart of Love’s Brother, an Australian/UK co-production and the directorial debut of Jan Sardi. An accomplished screenwriter in Australia for more than 20 years, Sardi garnered international attention as the author of Shine (1996).

Set in an Italian community in 1950s rural Victoria, Love’s Brother is about siblings Gino (Adam Garcia) and Angelo (Giovanni Ribisi). They migrated to Australia four years earlier after their parents died, sponsored by uncle Zio (Joe Petruzzi) and aunt Zia (Dina Panozzo).

Gino and Angelo are a study in contrasts. Gino is younger, extroverted, vivacious and confident. He’s boyishly handsome and devoted to the withdrawn Angelo, although beginning to tire of helping him negotiate the ways of the world. Gino has a girl, Connie (Silvia de Santis), an expatriate who’s more Australian than Italian - she’s even dyed her hair blonde. Connie’s besotted with Gino but refuses to sleep with him until they’re married. Gino does not wish to upset tradition and marry before his eldest brother is wed.

At the behest of his brother, and the local Italian matchmaker (Eleanor Bron), Angelo has been studiously writing letters and dispatching photographs to eligible young women in the Old country. As played by Ribisi, Angelo stoops with shyness. He over-analyses everything and blinks painfully whenever he’s the focus of attention, like a wild animal startled by a bright light. For the most part, he is stiff and starched-looking, but Angelo also has a calculating streak. Numbed by his latest postal rejection, he slips in a photo of the more attractive Gino - instead of himself - with his next supplication. The ruse works. Rosetta (Amelia Warner) is seduced by Gino’s portrait and agrees to come to Australia to marry Angelo, unaware that he is really her “love’s brother”.

The complex and intriguing sibling relationship is both the strength and weakness of the film. Ribisi initially dominates, with his hunched posture and a rasping voice that recalls Marlon Brando’s stuffed cheeks performance in The Godfather. It’s a little too much for a light romantic drama, especially when you realise Ribisi’s prepared to alienate us rather than clue us into what Angelo is feeling. Any notion that Angelo’s crippling shyness springs from sensitivity is soon shattered. During an ill-judged picnic scene, he capers about shadow boxing like a retarded child. Ribisi makes the character too remote for us to want Angelo to be happy.

It dawned on me soon after the picnic scene that Love’s Brother was really Gino’s story, but it had been hijacked by Ribisi’s overly mannered performance. Garcia certainly looks the part for Gino but there’s no depth to him on screen. That makes him perfect for the film’s beginning but not its final act when his relationship with Rosetta takes centre stage.

The young Warner (Quills, Mansfield Park) makes real the feelings of Rosetta, an otherwise doll-like character. Sardi’s choice of an Italian actress for Connie is to be applauded, as it gives the part greater authenticity and helps us warm to her. De Santis is a real find - Connie is never shrewish or unlikeable, even though she has to spend a good part of the film whining and pining. To his credit, Sardi avoids the language problems of an international cast by having everyone speak the same English, with partially shortened vowels suggesting Italian intonation.

The production looks gorgeous. Sardi filmed mostly in the towns of Daylesford and Hepburn Springs in Victoria. The scenes with Rosetta’s family are set in Cività di Bagnoregio, a small village north of Rome. Andrew Lesnie, making his first film after The Lord of the Rings, basks the action in a ravishing golden glow. The light helps Sardi achieve his desired dreamlike feel, although the transition into fantasy sequences is sometimes awkward. Fortunately, Love’s Brother mostly steers clear of clichéd soft focus Anglo-ethnic whimsy.

It’s a shame that Ribisi sometimes gives too much to the film and Garcia too little, but the imbalance is not fatal to the movie’s charm. Love’s Brother has a lingering warmth and sweetness.

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