There are great films that revel in poesy and their artiness- think the canons of Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick, and there are films, and then there are films that achieve greatness via their being great ‘prose.’ Such a film is Luchino Visconti’s 1960, 176 minute long, black and white film Rocco And His Brothers (Rocco E I Suoi Fratelli), easily the best of the handful of Visconti films I’ve seen, and in the first rank of prose masterpieces on film. Its greatness is not only in its great parts, but in its lesser facets, too. There is not only a realism that flows from the roots of the Italian Neo-Realism born in the 1940s, but there is great melodrama, of the Shakespearean sort, where one can know the general outlines of what will likely happen, but the presentation of those tropes- via the screenwriting and acting, are so first rate and so insightful that it matters not that you are witnessing melodrama because you are pulled relentlessly in to the moment. One can almost smell the poverty that black and white Milan, of the late 1950s and 1960s, bears. Film critic Phillip Lopate once called Visconti’s films operatic realism, and no film embodies both aspects of that term better than this one.
The film is divided into five parts, each named after the five Parondi brothers (who tend to dominate their named sections), ranging from oldest to youngest: Vincenzo, Simone, Rocco, Ciro, and Luca, and unfolds over the course of a handful of years. The film opens with Mama Rosaria (Katina Paxinou), a recent widow (and manipulative guilt-wielding shrew), bringing her four youngest sons north with her, on a train from some rural community in southern Italy, to stay in the north with her oldest son, Vincenzo (Spiros Focás), who is now charged with providing for the clan; a task he is not up for and does not seek. He is a failed boxer, looking for steady work, and the family bursts in on him at the home of his fiancée Ginetta (Claudia Cardinale), and immediately tensions arise. This causes friction between Vincenzo and Ginetta, but this is smoothed out swiftly, and for most of the rest of the film Vincenzo acts as a responsible husband and father, with only the barest of ties to the rest of the clan. After he finds them an apartment, he learns how they can con their way into getting a city-sponsored residence.
The second section of the film, named after Simone (Renato Salvatori), finds the central plot of the film weaving. One night, Vincenzo discovers a prostitute named Nadia (Annie Girardot, who became a star after this role, and later married Salvatori), kicked out by her parents (or possibly a client, with the parents used as a cover?), and brings her into the apartment to warm up. There, she catches the fancy of Simone, who has started a career in boxing, and the two of them begin an affair that is cheap, vulgar, and filled with rage and abuse on both sides- emotional and psychological on her side, as she is older and wiser, and responsive physical abuse on his. Eventually she leaves him, and after Rocco (Alain Delon, in the best role I’ve seen him in) meets her several times (including a year after her breakup with Simone, when he is in the Army, and she on parole after a year in jail, during his titled section- a wonderful bit of narrative exposition crammed into a brief scene of him reading a letter from his mother), they start dating, fall in love, and she leaves her former ways, until Simone- now a washed up boxer, finds out. Rocco has usurped him as a boxer with better potential, and now Simone feels he has ‘stolen’ his girl, although he earlier told Rocco he did not want her because she was a whore. Simone and his buddies find Rocco and Nadia, and Simone rapes her as his buddies hold his brother. After she and the others leave, Simone and Rocco fight, with the elder brother getting the upper hand. Rocco heads to Vincenzo’s to recover, and lives with his brother and sister-in-law. He feels he has driven Simone to a madness which could destroy his family, and, in misplacing his sense, loyalty, and concern, rejects Nadia- the real victim, saying she needs to be with Simone, the non-victim that he cares more about. This act alone knocks Rocco from the role of filmic hero, and the torch is tossed about until it lands in the hands, a bit later, of Ciro. However, despite seeming melodramatic, the fact is that many Italian families I knew, even here in America, acted in just the same way, putting family above all others- hell, how do you think the Mafia code of Omerta was born? For her part, Nadia refuses, and declares she hates both brothers, but soon falls back, due to a weak will, into her abusive relationship with Simone, who is a jobless, petty thief (whom we earlier see steal from, then seduce, an older woman- Rocco’s boss, all the while stealing a broach he gives to Nadia, who returns it to Rocco, before leaving town and dumping Simone). Rocco then finds out Simone owes big money to his former boxing handler. The handler seems to be holding Simone ‘hostage’ not for the money but because he has refused the handler’s likely homosexual advances, for which the handler accuses Simone of ‘speculating on his weakness.’ This is also nicely foreshadowed earlier in the film, when Simone, after his first boxing victory, walks off with Nadia, despite the promoter’s beeping his car horn and flashing his car lights, at him) and agrees to pay off his debt by signing a ten year boxing contract with a promoter, and soon becomes a champion boxer.
This leads into the section named for Ciro (Max Cartier). We briefly see a romance abloom, but most of his section continues the Simone-Nadia-Rocco melodrama, as Ciro tries to dissuade Rocco from covering for Simone. Vincenzo, the realist, says he can barely support his family, and Ciro, the realist and fair one- who works at an Alfa Romeo factory, believes Rocco should let Simone hang, for he is the bad seed. But, Rocco the saint blames himself for Simone’s fall, and their mother deludes herself as to Simone’s value. Ciro works out a deal where Simone agrees to leave town with Nadia if he gets enough money. But, their mother ends up driving Nadia away. This leads into the fifth and final section, on Luca (Rocco Vidolazzi), wherein the youngest son, by far, is seen torn between his brothers. Rocco is now a celebrity and sports hero while, after a year without Nadia, Simone hears of her from his buddies, who now treat him as a has been. As when he beat up Rocco and raped Nadia, the drunken Simone is ‘egged on’ by his pals into violence. He tracks Nadia to a park where she is with a john. He interrupts, then beats her, then (in an easily seen bit of phallic foreshadowing- one of the film’s few flaws) flicks open a switchblade, and repeatedly stabs her to death.
He runs to the family apartment, where a celebration of Rocco’s championship is being held, and confesses all to Rocco, who openly weeps and blames himself for Nadia’s death and Simone’s savagery. But Rocco wants to first help cover up the murder, until Ciro take it upon himself to turn in the murderer. After hiding three days, Luca tells Ciro- now the family pariah, on a lunch break from his factory, that the police caught Simone. Luca is initially put off, but understands Ciro’s reasons, which include wanting his youngest brother to flee the corruption of the city for life at home in the country (the mythic ‘homeland’ Rocco longs to return to, but which Visconti wisely never shows within the film). The film then ends with the young boy touching a poster of one of Rocco’s advertised fights, then walking off down a bleak urban road.
The DVD, by Image Entertainment, has no special features, not even a start menu, but at 176 minutes is the fullest version of the film ever available in the America (the film was heavily censored abroad and here, due to the rape and murder scenes), shown in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. It is also a remarkably crisp and almost blemish free print. So much so that the white subtitles rarely are unreadable against light backgrounds. The acting is superb, and while star turns were made by Delon, Salvatori, and Girardot, all the performances are believable and affecting, as the screenplay, by Visconti, adapted from a story by Suso Cecchi d'Amico, blends melodrama and realism so well that to say it is a Shakespearean work is to undersell the film because it is a perfect example of a film succeeding primarily on its proletarian narrative. By contrast, the cinematography, by Giuseppe Rotunno, is merely adequate, as it has few shots that rival the best journalistic shots of the era Neo-Realism was born. The same cannot be said for the gripping and masterly placed musical score, by the magnificent Nino Rota. It captures one from the opening folks song’s contrast with the modern train station the clan first arrives out of to the final spasmodic scenes of violence and wistfulness at the end- note especially the scenes of Simone ‘stalking’ Rocco as he intends on catching his brother ‘betraying’ him with his ex-girlfriend. It is, in a career full of great scores, among Rota’s three or four best and evocative, and the film, as a whole, deserved its many film festival nominations and awards, for its greatness is not as apparent as its flaws; yet this aptly shows why and how greatness and filmic perfection are not the same thing. Despite those flaws- most notably the lurch into the dudgeon of melodrama, Rocco And His Brothers absorbs the viewer like an amoeba does its prey, totally, and in all ways. One cannot look away from the screen, for while the cinematography, as mentioned, does not blow one away, each frame is superbly composed by Visconti: details pepper the eye and make one feel at one with each moment; indeed, details realize this world, and multiple viewings only renew the film as a land familiar yet raw. Then there are the small connections between scenes and characters which seem incidental, but are revealed as deep, later on. As an example of a scene which resonates, there is the snow shoveling scene, when the brothers, early on, are roused to do scrounge work shoveling snow, the excitement exuded hits the viewer and makes one almost want to feel a flake on the flesh. This process of total immersion both enervates and invigorates, but it is the latter that sticks in one’s recall.
Aside from its great portrayal of family life (and, via Rocco, all the hypocrisies and evils therein), the film is also great study in the effects of World War Two on rejiggering the Italian lifestyle, especially with expanded urbanization. In the end, the three older brothers cannot deal with the move from the pastoral life of their youth. Ciro, who is easily the most ethically grounded brother (despite Rocco’s constantly being called saintly), can do so, and the film ends with the jury out on young Luca. This is heightened by the fact that we are not shown any images, within the film, of the family’s rural roots- not domestic nor geographic. It, as the past always is, is another country. But, many poor critics have mistakenly called the film a ‘tragedy,’ when it clearly is not, for a tragedy demands a sense of grandeur or greatness, and there are no such people in this film. Instead, Rocco And His Brothers shows us dirt poor ‘real’ people scraping to survive (in stark contrast to Visconti’s campier melodramas on the rich and powerful), and one of the consequences of survival is that only the fittest make it. Thus, Nadia, Simone, and one suspects Rocco, are doomed. But this fact is far more related to the film’s Neo-Realist roots than its melodramatic faux ‘tragedy.’ And that all this is done so deftly, with an economy of narrative setup, is a testament to both the writing and acting in selling what could be a really bad cliché.
Rocco And His Brothers is a great film, which only deepens upon successive viewings (in meaning and complexity) just as its nominal successor (Hannah And Her Sisters) was a quarter century later, but for the same reason, achieved by different means: it takes one into another (past) time and era seamlessly- making any inquiry into what mis-en-scene is seem silly; and in doing so proves it is timeless. And that is usually never too far from greatness.