Yohan Manca’s La Traviata, My Brothers and I presents a side of Italy rarely seen in modern cinema, one that lies just beyond the picturesque beaches filled with luxurious yachts and frolicking tourists. Low-income housing filled with struggling locals dots the sun-dappled horizon, creating a sharp contrast both visually and metaphorically, as one person’s idyllic getaway gives way to another individual’s desperate bid to stay afloat. Unfortunately, this unique setting is the only novelty My Brothers and I has to offer, its remainder a rather cliched coming-of-age tale about one fateful summer that forever changes a young boy’s life.
Nour (Maël Rouin Berrandou) is 13 years old and desperate to quit school, seeing education as nothing but a roadblock to steady employment and a chance at escaping his withering neighborhood. Nour lives in a small apartment with his three older brothers: Abel (Dali Benssalah), the stubborn and hot-headed alpha male who supports and protects his family; Mo (Sofian Khammes), a self-obsessed gigolo; and Hedi (Moncef Farfar), the fuck-up. Their father long dead from cancer, the four brothers have taken it upon themselves to care for their ailing mother, who lies in a coma in the main bedroom and who requires constant medical attention. As the bills begin to pile up and each family member tries to do their part, Nour finds escape in an opera class offered at the local school. The young man has long held a fascination with the genre, as Nour’s father would often sing it to his mother as a proclamation of his love. Building further conflict into the film, Abel sees the class as nothing more than a distraction and forbids his brother from attending, with predictable results.
My Brothers and I at least has the wherewithal not to take this material into full Billy Elliot territory, with Abel’s rationale being that he simply wants his little brother to make a few extra bucks and not become distracted by “superfluous” things. It’s honestly a pretty understandable and pragmatic point of view in reality, but in the film’s fiction, this seemingly pointless hobby is so obviously cast as Nour’s salvation. Or perhaps not. Manca clearly wants to present a more authentic loss-of-innocence tale, but so slavishly adheres to the cliches inherent within the genre that whenever he chooses to color outside of the lines, it feels wholly inorganic. And as a portrait of family, the film is incredibly hit-or-miss, as Nour’s brothers are presented as two-dimensional lunkheads defined by a couple broad characteristics. Only in brief moments do the quartet ever feel like a familial unit, but even then the chemistry comes across as forced when it’s existent at all. Berrandou, in his feature-film debut, at least brings a naturalism to his performance that hints at the film Manca strived to make, and he will rightly come out unscathed.
For all that, My Brothers and I isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just that, despite obvious intent that separates this from also-ran coming-of-age fellows, it can’t shake its deeply familiar trappings, and any realism the film brings to its prescribed formula is mere veneer. Put differently: don’t be surprised if this is ultimately picked up by Sony Pictures Classics and snags a Best Foreign Language Film nomination at the Oscars next year. That’s as succinct and telling a summation of La Traviata as there is.
Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 7.