I am sure, when Roberto Ando published his novel in 2012, that Italian critics cited Being There and Dave as likely influences. Now directing its adaptation, Ando strikes a lightly comic, wistful tone as identical twin brothers (played by Toni Servillo, from The Great Beauty and Il Divo) shake up the nation’s politics with a role swap. Estranged for 25 years, Enrico is the weary, antidepressant-pill-popping leader of Italy’s opposition left (though cozy with the ruling right); while philosopher Giovanni has evidently published a few books, but lives carefree and contentedly in a no-security mental asylum (where he’s also been practicing his tango moves). Enrico is married yet childless, still pining for the one great love of his past: Danielle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), now a married mother in Paris. Enrico’s political party and globe-trotting wife seem equally bored with him; the nation’s politics are in perpetual gridlock; so one morning he simply disappears—leaving loyal lieutenant Andrea (Valerio Mastandrea) to deal with the crisis.
Predictably, this is where the movie brightens up, thanks chiefly to Servillo’s unhinged zeal. Wearing his brother’s elegant suits and glasses, yet with hair inexplicably gone gray, the imposter bursts onto an ossified political scene, spouting philosophy and jokes. He’s a man of the people: hugging factory workers and scolding the press. He plays hide-and-seek with the confounded Prime Minister and, with a female factotum, puts those tango skills to good use. The polls are rising thanks to this truth-telling, seemingly reanimated old pol! Hardworking Andrea suddenly looks like a genius, and the false Enrico actually treats him like a friend—even a son.
Everything’s sunny in Italy, while the actual Enrico’s adventures in wintry Paris don’t carry such satiric spark. Danielle allows Enrico to hide with her family, even gets him a film-set job moving props (thereby mixing with the proles), but an affair is out of the question. Her movie director husband and cute daughter don’t do much for the plot, other than humanize Enrico in all the expected ways. We know Enrico will eventually return to power in Rome; the question is only when.
Given the boring range of choices available to us in American politics—professorial Obama, cautious Hillary, ersatz populists on the right—Ando’s gentle comedy ought to resonate more. But Italy itself is gradually emerging from the colorful corruption and bling of the Berlusconi years. The notion that a boldly unscripted and unfiltered leader could shake the nation out of its torpor is attractive, but not the correct comedic remedy. (Also, where are the actual voters here? They exist only as poll numbers, not people, notwithstanding Giovanni’s final invocation of Brecht.) Viva la Liberta offers a tame political fantasia where more lacerating laughs are needed.
VIVA LA LIBERTA Opens Fri., Jan. 2 at Seven Gables. Not Rated. 94 minutes.