Rocco e i suoi fratelli
starring Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot, Katina Paxinou
screenplay by Luchino Visconti and Vasco Pratolini and Suso Cecchi d'Amico, based on the novel Il ponte della Ghisolfa by Giovanni Testori
ritten and directed by Luchino Visconti
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover Once, decades ago, Luchino Visconti was a name to conjure with. Not only was his Ossessione recognized a torrid precursor of Italian Neo-Realism, but his tragic characters on the cusp of societal change and fragmentation were greeted with the respect commonly afforded to what used to be known as high culture. Now, he's barely remembered in North America, punished for the crime of quietly going about his business. La terra trema notwithstanding, he was less movement-defining than high neo-realists like DeSica or Rossellini; nor was he an inventor of modernist forms, like Antonioni and Resnais. And as his literary, aristocratic bent was less formally bracing than a nouvelle vague hotshot, Visconti's films seem to the uninitiated too much like just movies--they didn't change how you looked at the medium, they simply inhabited it, for good or for ill.
Rocco and His Brothers encapsulates his stately talent--both his greatest strength and his biggest weakness--in a frankly melodramatic exploration of a Southern Italian family's dissolution in Milan. As we follow the impoverished Parenti clan in their sad decline in pursuit of a better life, we watch Visconti knock himself out on a narrative level while holding back on the aesthetics, coming up with something like On the Waterfront adapted as an opera, a kitchen-sink Tennessee Williams that often short-circuits itself in its clash of sensibilities but always manages to hold interest as either a gripping story or a fascinating contradiction ripe for working out its kinks over coffee.
The Parentis arrive out of the blue in Milan hoping to be put up by the son who's about to get married--they're tired of starving down south and hope to find a better life in the city. It doesn't quite happen that way. After a row with the treading-water son, they traverse the byzantine public housing laws and take odd jobs to keep their threadbare lives. The film is split between the sons' pursuit of happiness: while Ciro (Max Cartier) gets his high school diploma and graduates to work in an Alfa Romeo plant, Simone (Renato Salvatore) and Rocco (Alain Delon) gravitate towards boxing, the ultimate expression of the body as capital to be exploited by others. It is here that the film finds its centre of gravity, as the impulsive and brutal Simone fades while Rocco reaches a summit, as their aspirations--and the family's bonds--are tested to their breaking point.
How does this all play out? Strangely. One can see Visconti fighting with himself over his operatic aspirations and his last-gasp neo-realism, allowing for a kind of grandeur in which one seldom sees the proletariat rendered. Slow pans across overcrowded rooms, vast, snowy apartment courtyards swallowing tenants in space, jagged buildings holding watch over badly-lighted streets--it's the opposite of what one expects from a depiction of the "little people," and it makes the Parentis, and everyone like them, seem as important as the aristocrats to whom Visconti would eventually turn his attention. The sweep is important, and it gives the narrative a surging, elegiac feel that is entirely appropriate to the subject matter.
The dramaturgy, however, is another matter. It comes as no surprise that Visconti directed Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, because it has all of their least desirable qualities: overheated sensationalism from the former, wildly expository dialogue and obvious symbolism from the latter. All of the characters have one trait they flog mercilessly (practical Ciro, brutal Simone, selfless Rocco), and they're so stiffly rendered that one has difficulty believing them as people. When, after a self-destructive Simone rapes Rocco's girl and his ex-girl Nadia (Annie Girardot), Rocco selflessly turns her over to him so that he might be saved, it doesn't quite take: Rocco does it because it's his character's narrative function rather than because he feels for Simone. Nevertheless, Rocco and His Brothers is worth seeing despite its excesses, as it draws a diagram for how economics can rip apart human connections. The Parentis are sucked out of their rural roots by necessity, and break up again for much the same reason; an epic sweep allows Visconti to show us the mechanism that does them in. And if it makes that visible, it ought to make the director visible as more than a dimly-remembered auteur whose time has passed. Originally published: August 2, 2002.