Rocco and His Brothers Movie Review

by Chris McEneany
Movies & TV Review
Rocco and His Brothers Movie Review

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Operatic yet filmed in an almost documentary manner, Luchino Visconti's complex and emotional saga of a rural family fracturing when thrust into contact with the harsh realities of urban life in the go-for-broke, mean streets of 1950's Milan is often spellbindingly overwrought stuff. Cited as being a huge influence on Italian-American filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola (whose Godfather trilogy owes a lot to this melodramatic epic) and Martin Scorsese (who uses much of Rocco's thematic study of relationships put-to-the-test for his own Mean Streets and Goodfellas) Visconti's film is a fierce left-field production that tackles the all-too real with the vigorous and volatile creativity that art-house Italian Cinema is renowned for. My own forte with Italy's insanely flamboyant and emotional filmmaking style is the horror film or the Spaghetti western. The early movies of Mario Bava and Sergio Leone's estimable sixties canon tend to dominate my cosmopolitan viewing from this period. But 1960's Rocco And His Brothers is an important enough movie for me to savour subject matter that I would normally see as a chore to sit through.

The plot is virtually a simple slice of culture-clash, but Visconti, who had a hand in screenwriting the film along with several other credited writers, seizes the opportunity to highlight the social hypocrisies of Italy's economic plight during the fifties to create a vivid exploration of how people respond to change. And, if the rural Parondi Family are anything to go by, it is with great emotional upheaval, violence and a splintering of their own traditional values. If this sounds like so much kitchen-sink melodrama, then that is quite accurate. The film is deliberately soap-like in its depiction of the various alliances and scenarios that the close-knit, yet fiercely independent, brothers experience, but Visconti is too much of an emotional artist to simply allow things to become tedious, dry or stereotypical. With the quintessentially protective and often domineering Mama (Katina Paxinou) paving the way into the urban sprawl of Milan, the four brothers - Rocco (the French soon-to-be-superstar Alain Delon), the money-hungry and overbearing Simone (an aggressive Renato Salvatori), Spiros Focas (the erstwhile Vincenzo, who has already made the break from the village and has a fiancé in the form of Claudia Cardinale's Ginetta), the honourable Ciro (Max Cartier) and the youngster who observes all the ensuing fracas with irresistible innocence and an ultimate sense of optimism Luca (Rocco Vidalazzi) - the family have noble intentions and begin to carve a respectable and hardworking name for themselves. Inevitably, problems arise. Mama cannot help but stick her provincial nose into the attitudes and business of Vincenzo's potential in-laws and another woman - in the luscious form of Anna Girardot - hammers a wedge between the two leaders of the pack with such devastating consequences that the film, around the midway point, becomes a real simmering pot of lust, hatred, revenge and agony for all concerned.

“We should never have left home.”

In a great many ways, Visconti is the European answer to Japan's Ozu in that he makes accurate depictions of times and places in a nation's societal history that can positively stand as serious commentaries and observations. As with Ozu's slowly evocative social more studies, Visconti is enamoured by how the era shapes the people and how the attitudes of different portions of the same country can come into serious conflict. And, as with Ozu, he makes the point via intimate examinations of family relationships, the angst and pathos of the mundane becoming the very thrust of the drama and driving the severity of tradition right into the face of unyielding change. I'm not familiar with Visconti's other work, except for The Leopard, which starred Burt Lancaster and one of his supporting cast from this, the captivating Claudia Cardinale in the film that certainly put her on the map to international fame. His theatrical background appears to have played a huge influence in his later productions though, which explored the divide between the classes and the tendrils of family bonding and deceit in a dreamier and, at times, more sexually explicit fashion. But Rocco And His Brothers is a sure-fire work of excellence at a time when Italian Cinema was undergoing something of a cultural revolution, his devotion to bringing neo-realism to the masses revealing itself to be a concerted effort to rock the establishment by showing the immense distinction between the haves and have-nots.

Of the brothers, the big name is Alain Delon and his performance as Rocco is magnificent. Going against the harder and more aggressive persona he would later adopt for his native French thrillers, Delon essays a wonderful and deeply written character study of a man who may be a fish out of water in the big city, but is still so innately determined to see the good side of everyone that he comes across that his own actions for the best, as he sees it, can still have catastrophic repercussions. Rocco is both noble and naïve, innocent but determinedly optimistic. It is a difficult role to be convincing in without becoming a sort of parody, but Delon does supremely well. His continual crusade to do things for the betterment of the family, even when the ultimate act of treachery and violence has been committed, is something that everyone can associate with, but the majesty of his portrayal is where the crucial aspect lies. The blood-ties that bind him to his clan are so strong that when he appears to be giving in to the demonstrative and violent Simone, he is actually performing acts of the utmost courage and charity. But, have no fear, Rocco, like his almost-namesake Rocky, proves to have what it takes in the ring when he finds himself in the boxing ring, taking on the mantle of family-champion after a severely distracted Simone scuttles from the limelight. The use of close-in camerawork and the surging emotion of the fight-fans around the ring had a big influence on Martin Scorsese and such scenes, as well as those recreating the pressurised activity back at the gym with the managers and promoters would have their impact upon his own hyper-stylised Raging Bull.

“Simone once had good roots. But he let weeds overtake him.”

Renato Salvatori is the intense genius who brings the emotive and highly-strung Simone to blistering, punishing life. At first likeable and someone you feel you can rely upon - one of the lynchpins of the family unit - his fateful association with a popular prostitute will spark off a series of events that blow the Parondi's apart. With a bludgeoning performance that will see him be the first to take to the boxing ring, but find more effective use for his fists on the streets, Salvatori is both entrancing and intimidating. He does become a monster as the film progresses and there are certain scenes when his primal instincts and fierce jealously will be shocking and traumatic, but Visconti allows him to have a full arc that lets us into the psychological torment that he suffers. We may lose faith in him altogether - and certain pivotal acts will have us hating him - but there is never less than a twang of pity for his deplorable excesses, too. Simone makes some terrible mistakes, but it is the indomitable pride that he brings with him from their hometown, that has him compounding his damnation still further. His stubbornness often seems to have been egged-on by those around him, those who see him as a fool who can be coerced all-too easily into viciousness and thuggery. As such, Salvatori sees that Simone is as much as victim of his circumstances as Rocco is the hero of his. The two characters are utterly compelling portraits of the opposite ends of the loyalty spectrum. One will fight to protect the sanctity and reputation of the family, whilst the other can't help but see such deeds as betrayal if they end up showing him in a bad light. It is a brilliant device, and one that many families and, particularly, the siblings within them, will identify with.

If Salvatori delivers a commanding performance that rattles along like a locomotive dangerously close to leaving the rails, then Annie Girardot as Nadia, the incendiary whore who ignites the Parondi brothers and is the root cause of so much heartbreak for the family, is the dynamite that will send it hurtling off the track. Her screen presence is so full-bodied and confident, her brazen attitude to the camera - flaunting her legs and simmering so much that you fear the film will catch light - that it is easy to see how both Simone and Rocco could fall so heavily and tragically under her spell. It seems weird to think that the ravishing Claudia Cardinale - the sex-bomb at the heart of Leone's awesome Once Upon A Time In The West - is the lesser beauty in the piece, playing Vincenzo's fiancé Ginetta, but Girardot has such a minx-like mischievous quality, threatening to the naïve country-boys, that she dominates the film. Visconti allows her to storm the gamut of all emotions, though, not just her effortlessly alluring sensuality. A wily tease for the first act, Girardot will be dragged through the emotional mire during the second and then, turn full circle into a demented mirror-image of her initial wanton harlot, embittered, enraged and full of spiteful, verbal wrath. It is a juicy role, and scenes of her carousing in the clubs that Simone likes to gamble in reveal a haunting doggedness to her virtual stalking of the one who violated her. One terrific set-piece takes place spectacularly upon the rooftop balcony of an impressively-shot cathedral, Nadia's dilemma bringing her perilously close to the edge - quite literally. It is moments such as this that Visconti embraces the operatic nature of the material full-on but, by now, he has paved the way so eloquently and diligently that you will buy anything he offers. There is genuine hurt on show once the unthinkable has been done to her and the psychological damage, no matter how well the character may think she has masked it, is dreadfully apparent in every snarled syllable, every beautifully abused expression. And the huge row that she has with Mama is an absolute show-stopper. No man in his right mind would ever dare intervene when two colossally proud-but-hurt Italian women go to war!

“Who are you, anyway? Mister Skilled Worker at the Alfa Romeo plant - some career that is!”

A clever conceit is that although the family often wax lyrical about their hometown, we never actually see any of it. Not even in rose-tinted flashback. This has the effect of maintaining it's almost fairytale quality in our minds as well as the Pirondi family's. The out-of-towners early adventures in Milan border on the comical. Check out the scene when the boys go to the gym, only to be ridiculed for their ludicrous long-johns. But this displaced-ness will become incredibly poignant come the finale when dreams of home offer false, but necessary hope. The theme of change being a painful process no matter who it affects comes across throughout the entire film, although Visconti lets it filter through the situations in a manner that is gripping yet realistic. Both Rocco, who is initially shy and overly-helpful, and Ciro, who will come to play an important part during the final act, find themselves acting with a bravery they would rather not have to confront. Simone, alone, is the one who has the courage of convictions all along, although these inevitably become sinister, desperate and twisted. But it is little Luca who instils the ray of light at the end of the Parondi's dark tunnel for he, alone, remains uncorrupted by the change that has blighted his family. Incidentally, have a look at the boxing posters on the walls and you will see that the family name has been optically fogged - by which I mean little dabs of white floating about on the camera lens to obscure the original name for the fictitious brood. This is because a real family opposed to their name being smudged by the antics of the cinematic brothers forcing Visconti to alter the onscreen name to Parondi for the dubbing, although it was too late to re-film certain scenes that had the name plastered all over them.

Italian Cinema was much more progressive than its American and British counterparts. Whilst the US was only beginning to embrace darker, more nihilistic war pictures and westerns with the likes of The Longest Day and Duel At Diablo and, the UK found Kensington gore with Hammer, pushed urban menace with Brighton Rock and broke the odd taboo with Spartacus (which came out the same year as Rocco), Italy was churning out macabre chillers left and right, with Bava's immortal Black Sunday leading the way. Their unique, firebrand combination of sex and murder altogether more contemporary and accessible than, say, Hammer, whose brand of brutality was fantastical and quite far removed from the gritty depiction of rape, a protracted beating and, ultimately, murder that Visconti reinforced his film with. Viewers will be pleased to know that Rocco And His Brothers is releases here in its full uncut form. Tame by today's standards, of course, the violence is still fairly ripe and its sexual motivations overt.

“She had goose-pimples because she was cold.”

“No ...she's anaemic. She's got Northern skin!”

Nino Rota's score is surprisingly effective. Understated, yet strangely powerful enough to convey much with seemingly little effort, his music evokes an era and the colliding mindsets of the rural and the urban without resorting to sentiment or wallowing in melancholy. Rota would, of course, go on to score The Godfather for Coppola and from his work here, you can clearly see why he was commissioned for another sprawling, multi-strand story. Likewise, Giuseppe Rotunno's sublime black and white cinematography creates its own milieu that is, at once, both realistic and intimately conversant with the many characters' plights, again reinforcing Visctonti's conjuring of the operatic within the everyday. Much of the framing favours depth, and many shots contain numerous subjects, such as lots of people crowded in one room, or the streets of the housing project - and it is remarkable how much agility the camera seems to possess whilst moving through and around them, lending the film the impression of gliding by.

Rocco And His Brothers is a classic film, folks, and one that, although quite long - at ten minutes off the three-hour mark - moves along at a brisk pace, packing nearly as much emotion and authenticity, loathing and redemption, culture-shock and psychological probing as a saddled-up Sergio Leone western. Highly recommended.

Scores

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8
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