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Toni Servillo is reason enough to see ‘Viva la Liberta’

The Italian politician at the heart of “Viva la Libertà,” an agreeable but unmemorable film, knows a political smackdown is about to occur. He is sheepish, tentative, and very quiet on his way to a speech.

He is Enrico Oliveri, leader of the opposition party, and when it is finally time for his speech … he is silent.

Because he is played by the great Toni Servillo, we can feel his pain intensely.

Servillo, who so memorably played the lead role in “The Great Beauty” – last year’s Oscar winner for best foreign language film – has appeared in a number of stronger, more acidic state-of-the-nation dramas in recent years, including “Gomorrah,” “Il Divo” and “Dormant Beauty.”

Comparatively, director Roberto Andò’s “Viva la Libertà” feels toothless, a bit surprising for a political drama set in the land of Berlusconi. But just because it is nowhere near a home run does not mean it’s entirely without value.

In fact, Servillo and a few interesting turns keep things mostly compelling. Those twists are essential, since the basic premise is one we have seen many, many times before: a look-alike sibling is drafted to replace his brother.

The political sibling, Oliveri, is a dour, perennially somber person. On the eve of a national election, he disappears, leaving behind a story of illness and unanswered questions, especially for his beleaguered aide Andrea (Valerio Mastandrea).

His wife, Anna (Michela Cescon), however, remembers something that may just save her husband’s political career: He has a look-alike brother.

Giovanni is a philosopher and author who invariably wears a grin. But he has issues of his own. Bipolar and recently released from an insane asylum, Giovanni is a smart, passionate, but complex individual who tells the truth at all times.

Of course, this new approach makes Oliveri a political sensation, and his prospects for re-election suddenly skyrocket. Meanwhile, the real Oliveri is far away, staying with an old flame and her family in Paris.

It is too bad that “Viva” never says anything truly probing about Italian politics. And the long stretches in Paris are a complete miss, slowing down any momentum that the Giovanni storyline has built up.

There also is the matter of tone. For the first half of “Viva la Libertà,” I took the film as a light comedy, albeit one without a laugh. Yet by the end, any sense of attempted comedy is gone, marking the film as a straight drama.

The flaws, then, are plentiful, but there is just enough here in terms of story and direction to keep us interested. Yes, the “double” concept is old hat, but it still makes for an absorbing sense of urgency.

Above all else, there is Servillo. The actor clearly relishes the opportunity to play two very different characters, and brings to each part the melancholy grace that made “The Great Beauty” such a triumph.

His run of the last half-decade or so is phenomenal – De Niro and Pacino would sell their souls, or their “Righteous Kill” cast and crew bomber jackets, for a sniff at this level of quality.

By all means, see (and likely) enjoy “Viva la Libertà,” and follow it up with one of his modern classics. If you discover that Servillo is one of your new favorite actors, then “Viva” has done its job.

Viva La LibertÀ

2.5 stars

Starring: Valerio Mastandrea, Toni Servillo, Michela Cescon

Director: Roberto Andò

Running time: 94 minutes

Rating: Unrated, but PG-13 equivalent for adult situations.

The Lowdown: A philosopher impersonates his look-alike brother, an unpopular politician who has dropped out of sight. In Italian with subtitles.

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