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Visconti (1906-1976) was born into privilege and wealth in an aristocratic Milanese
family. Chafing under the constraints of fascism and despite his family background,
Visconti became a Marxist, though a Marxist with a capitalist's tastes and bank account to
be sure. As a filmmaker, his initial effort, Ossessione,
is considered to be a forerunner of neorealism, but Visconti's sensibility quickly carried
him from the austerity of neorealism to a more embellished style, sometimes visually
elaborate, sometimes histrionic to the point of melodrama.
Rocco and His Brothers has the look of Italian neorealism, using handsome black and white photography to tell the story of a poor family struggling to survive its transition from the impoverished south of Italy to industrial Milan. The movie's temperament, though, swerves sharply to the noir, both in its use of highly contrasted light and shadow, Nino Rota's score, and a plot rich in melodramatic development. Indeed, the interaction among the key characters--two bothers, Rocco (Alain Delon) and Simone (Renato Salvatori) and the hooker, Nadia (Annie Girardot), whom they both love--go beyond social realism and into the realm of the floridly operatic.
The film covers a span of several years. From their arrival at the train station in Milan, the Parondi family seems destined for problems. Although there is a dogged determination to better their impoverished lives, especially personified in the mother, Rosaria (Katina Paxinou, chewing up the scenery), there is also a country naivete that will clearly be challenged by big city realities. Rosaria expects her eldest son, Vicenzo (Spiros Focas), who preceded the family to Milan, to provide for them. It turns out that he is engaged to be married and there is conflict between the bride's family's expectations of him and those of his mother.
When the film was first released in the United States in 1961, about half an hour was cut, deemed to be too violent for American audiences. A new print is now being released, taken from the original negative, the cuts thus restored, and it has been freshly subtitled as well. There are two particularly violent scenes both of which are also key to the drama; it is hard to imagine the film without these scenes--or even with them bowdlerized. And while one involves a rape and the other a murder, there is nothing here that comes near the visually graphic violence of contemporary films.
Simone becomes a boxer, encouraged by Nadia who introduces him to a promoter who recruits young talent and pays them poorly. (There's a long history of films (Body and Soul, Girlfight) showing boxing as an exit route from poverty.) He's a winner and his career flourishes, but he's irresponsible--he's a thief, he smokes and he chases women, falling for Nadia. For Nadia, the relationship is strictly professional. Meanwhile, Rocco is working in a drycleaning store; Simone steals a broach from Rocco's boss to give to Nadia, who learns whose it is and returns it.
Rocco is drafted into the army. Nadia tells him she's leaving; when he tells Rocco she's gone, Rocco is bitter. Some time later, still in uniform, Rocco runs into Nadia. She reveals to him that she had been in prison, shrugging it off as part and parcel of her work. Rocco, unlike Simone, treats Nadia with respect and kindness; they fall in love. "Have faith and no fear," Rocco urges her. "Maybe you can teach me not to be afraid," she answers.
Rocco's character is progressively drawn as almost saintlike--giving, forgiving, selfless. He, too, starts having great success in the ring, even as Simone is on the decline, going deeply in debt, gambling. A confrontation between the two over Nadia is inevitable; when it happens, it is brutal. Even then, Rocco turns the other cheek. A still more shocking development is yet to come.
While Simone is an expression of the corruption of the southern immigrant by the big city, Rocco's almost unbelievable saintliness is linked to his longing for home, "the land of the olive tree, the moon and rainbows." And younger brother Ciro (Max Cartier), the only one to get some education, is shown at the end in overalls, a worker at an Alfa-Romeo factory. Although he's employed and productive, and presumably has found what the family came north for in the first place, there's also a suggestion from Visconti that he has just become a cipher in the mass of industrial workers, all seen in their identical overalls.
In the large cast, it is Annie Girardot who gives the memorable performance, inhabiting the role of the jaded and embittered hooker who grasps at one promised chance of happiness, only to have it snatched away in the most ironic of circumstances.
Visconti works on a large canvas in Rocco and, without being didactic, explores economic issues--what it takes to for the poor to survive, no less to make a decent living, and the compromises along the way. He shows the polarization of north and south, urban and rural. But the heart of the story is in the relationships among Rocco, Simone, and Nadia. It is their stories that provide the dramatic momentum and they are the characters most full developed. While the operatic style of this triumvirate may seem somewhat dated to contemporary sensibilities, the central drama is undeniable. In good opera, there is a willing suspension of disbelief when music exquisitely carries the emotions of the dramatic situation; in Rocco, even with its undeniable excess, the climactic moments transcend style and are profoundly moving.
- Arthur Lazere